That Romeo Montague chap asked “what’s in a name?” and as it turns out, quite a lot actually. A band’s name can say as much or as little about them as they care to share, but it’s undeniable that they will be judged by it. Assumptions will be made, as a mysterious band of chaps, photographically faceless and with nowt but a shape to be known by, are finding out. For Alt-J withholding information is proving powerful. Well sorry lads; here’s your exposé.
Crack artfully scheduled a chat with the band at their recent Africa Centre gig, the venue for their first headline London show since signing to Infectious. Sneaking a gig in alongside business is absolutely legit when the band is this scintillating to watch. Along with the audience, Crack is bubbling with anticipation. It’s been a while since we last saw them live, down the front at their debut single launch back in October. What a long way they’ve come since.
It would be incorrect to call Alt-J an overnight success. Joe Newman, Gwilym Sainsbury, Thom Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton go way back, firm friends from the off at Leeds University. Frontman Joe had already been busy writing songs when he met future guitarist Gwil and drummer Thom on their Fine Art course. They added keyboardist Gus (who handily happens to be a classically trained pianist, but he doesn’t go on about it) and the band was born. They started jamming, penning and gigging three years ago, recent release Matilda dating back to 2009. You see, this recently rapid rate of pop progression has been a while in coming. The snowball started rolling proper last October with the launch of debut AA side single Tessellate/Bloodflood, put out by Loud & Quiet. The record was picked up by BBC Radio 6. Signing to Infectious Records came in the final days of 2011 and recording their debut album began their New Year. Then came a nationwide tour supporting Ghostpoet, followed by another with Wild Beasts. Even the lads themselves were impressed with this. “Wild Beasts are the reason I stuck with being in a band”, Gwil confesses. Their geographical knowledge of Britain must be pretty shit hot by now. Always a bonus.
So what’s with the symbol for a name? Alt-J by any name would sound as sweet, but as it stands, their unusual choice of moniker (holding the ‘alt’ key and hitting ‘J’ results in the triangle symbol ‘delta’ – ∆) has certainly drawn attention. T-shirts, 7” singles and even fans’ tattooed arms are emblazoned with the triangular shape. But whilst iconic to those in the know, it’s a curve ball thrown at the Google generation and something of a PR nightmare. What were they thinking? “Isn’t that good?” Gwil questions Crack in retaliation. The man has a point. “It makes it more interesting. Everything is so accessible now. People put so much on the internet that it seems more of a powerful thing to withhold information.”
Before settling on their three-sided handle, the lads were known as FILMS for a while, a name equally hard to Google search. Are they massive film fans? “Maybe that’s where the word came from, but it’s not really what it meant”, explains Thom. “It’s just a great word, it sounds nice.” He’s right, it does. A couple of their early tracks were certainly film-inspired though, particularly their second AA singleFitzpleasure/Matilda, the latter of which is a sweet homage to the pint-sized heroine of Leon. Crack wonders, if they could score any movie which they would choose? Joe decides on “anything for Paddy Considine”, while Gwil muses, “it’s arrogant and I couldn’t do it better, butKoyaanisqatsi. It’s the ultimate film to make a score for but you’re never going to do it better than Philip Glass.” Thom adds, “my favourite films are realistic ones based on true stories, like Snow Town. I’d do stuff like that, where it was very industrial and scarier than what you were actually seeing.” As Crack had suspected, they are definitely film buffs. So who would play Alt-J in their biopic? Gwil chuckles. “Joe would be James Corden and Gus would be Daniel Radcliffe”, then nods to Thom. “You’d be Brad Pitt.” Thom’s okay with this. “Yeah, Brad Pitt or Christian Bale, I don’t mind either. Bale is amazing. He’s my favourite actor.” After some debate it’s decided that Gwil can be played by Macaulay Culkin.
Corden, Radcliffe, Pitt and Culkin perched together onstage paints an intriguing picture, but unless you’re a seasoned veteran Alt-J fan, chances are you wouldn’t recognise the band in a line-up. Initial press shots saw the band cleverly avoiding looking directly into the camera lens, if at all. Why all the mystery? Gwil’s not sure that was the motivation. “What we don’t like is the dishonest posing and ‘coolness’ of a lot of band photos, so in a lot of our early ones we did things not just to hide our faces, but things that were just anti-posing. You’ve got a lot of potential with a photograph to make something interesting, so I think you should take that on.” Thom backs him up. “There’s little uniqueness to it. When you flick through a music magazine – it’s all the same.”
A gimmick this ain’t. Having an image isn’t important to these boys. Making great tunes is. Their commitment to making music that they believe in and are proud of is crystal clear. Theirs is a blend of folk and electronica with often grimy beats that makes for a ruddy refreshing “new sound” – to quote The Mighty Boosh’s immortal words – that’s been missing from Crack’s stereo. Did they set out to make something that would stand out from other music? Gwil shakes his head. “Not in a way that we got together and discussed some sort of manifesto or something, but just in the way that I think we make sounds that we’d like to hear.” Thom agrees. “It’s all about being interesting. We know what we want to hear, and it just happens that people like it. It’s amazing.”
So let’s get to the bottom of this. If we had a time machine handy would they prefer to go back and be a 60s folk act or a 90s jungle outfit? Gwil and Thom both decide they would rather be jungle producers, while Joe goes for the former. “Yeah, the 60s one probably. San Francisco and all that. I would probably join a cult and drink that punch that killed everyone.” After some chat, in which James Blake, Johnny Flynn and Nas come up, it’s apparent that the boys’ musical tastes differ hugely. Crack reckons it’s this cacophony of influences and flair for experimentation that makes the Alt-J magic happen. But who are we to say?
What we do know is that their songs are impressive, moving and sumptuous. The band jams to compose most of their music together, Joe writes the lyrics and Gus composes all the piano parts. Now Crack is curious whether music or lyrics come first. Joe’s not sure: “I haven’t identified a clean cut routine when writing a song yet. Most of the time I sit on things, like a word I like or a sentence I’ve pinched from a book or an idea for a narrative. I wait for the right time to set it up with another idea, be it a chord structure, drum beat or more lyrics, and just collage it all together. Most tracks are a great number of doodles hacked together to form one song.” So how do they know when it’s finished? Thom offers: “Well you just know that nothing else needs to go in it. With recording you actually take a lot out.” Gwil agrees. “I always seems to be more about taking stuff out than putting stuff in, that I think is what making interesting music is. None of us play for the sake of playing. If we only play in a bit then that’s how it should be, because that’s what’s best for the track.”
Like so many artists, Joe’s lyrics borrow from all strands and brands of popular culture. Picasso was a demon for it. So is Hirst. And don’t get us started on Tame Impala, Girls and Yuck. So does Joe have favoured writers to borrow ideas from? “I’m happy with ‘steal’” he admits, “but that’s a hard question. I don’t think I have favourites. I’m impressed by all authors to be honest and in every book I read I find sentences I love. For me it’s about stealing those sentences and then running with it and taking it to your own ends and coming up with something fun and new that excites you.”
So after two AA side singles, one of which was released on very impressive triangular-shaped vinyl, the band’s debut album An Awesome Waveis soon upon us. Recorded in January by their long-serving producer (and now friend) Charlie Andrew, who has been at the helm of every recording the boys have released, the album is a lush, fluid journey through old favourites and new compositions. It suggest a recording process as smooth as the album itself. “We had the whole month at Charlie’s studio in Brixton to record. We knew the direction it was going to go in and we had an idea of what it was going to be, but when we go in the studio it actually became a lot clearer” explains Gwil. Yep, they know what they’re doing. Before they dash onstage, we have one last question. What is Fitzpleasure about? It’s impossible to make out Joe’s vocals, but it sounds filthy. The lads smile knowingly and Thom confirms that “we really can’t say until the album is out”. So there are still some mysteries that Crack will just have to leave be.
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An Awesome Wave is released on Infectious on 28th May
Words: Lucie Grace