Alt-J: ‘Imagine If All Music Became Interesting!’Interview
Every year, there’s one band playing the smaller tents of Reading & Leeds that packs the place...
Photo Credit: Phil Smithies
When we imagine Alt-J at home, in the studio, out and about - whatever it is they do when they’re not on stage, or talking to nosey people like us - we envisage them plotting. Plotting and scheming, with maniacal grins on their faces. Perhaps an unsettling-looking cat perched somewhere nearby; a shark with a frickin’ laser beam swimming underfoot. “Mwahahaha,” they cackle. “Mwahahahahahaha.” Alt-J, you see, are taking over the world.
It’s been an interesting few months for the boys. Having spent the last three and a half years together, it’s only more recently that things have really begun to take off: they’ve taken the charts by storm (#19 counts as a storm, right?), won over Radio 1, and scheduled in major festival appearances like they’re just another show down the local. “I’ll let you into a secret,” Joe Newman whispers to us conspiratorially when we meet. “There’s this band. It’s my band, but I don’t want people to know about it…” Unfortunately Newman isn’t letting us in on the secret to their success, rather he’s talking about the attitude of some of Alt-J’s original fans from back-in-the-day who weren’t always so happy sharing “their” band. “I think people like the idea that they’ve discovered something and they can show off with it. They can cherish it. I think people like to have discoveries and secrets with music.”
Well, the cat’s well and truly out of the bag now. Releasing their debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’ towards the end of May, the band were instantly met with critical acclaim and a legion of new followers. “When we finished the album, I thought it was really good,” explains bassist Gwil Sainsbury, when we ask if any of the success could have been anticipated. “But I think I probably thought it was really good, but pretty niche. I wasn’t convinced that it would get Radio 1 play, or anything like that.”
“I was aware that people were going to like the album,” adds Newman, “but I wasn’t aware of the abundance of opportunities that happen after your album is aired and played in different places and talked about by certain people. We were really proud of the album, so I always knew that it was going to be liked. At the end of the day, if we like it, then we’re comfortable that other people are going to like it. But I didn’t expect the kind of emails we were getting; that was bizarre.”
That’s understandable. As an album, it’s almost intimidating in its intricacy, sewn together with a dialogue inspired by literature and art. Everything from the track titles to the simplistic lyrical chants are layered with meaning. It’s nothing short of a creative masterpiece, but no one ever expected that to translate to the mainstream so quickly. “I think most of the time, whether it’s ideas or music, a lot of things that start off as niche but are good, or innovative, become part of the mainstream because they help change things gradually,” muses Sainsbury. “I just think our music is quite interesting. If you get other people into interesting music, and then that becomes mainstream, that’s f**king great! Imagine if all music became interesting. That’d be great, wouldn’t it?”
Ah, word of mouth. Let’s try something. Think of the most popular currently-active band you can think of, right now. One your mum likes. One you can’t open a tabloid or gossip blog without seeing. One that has teenagers going crazy. Who have you come up with? It’s One Direction, isn’t it? Well, a certain Harry Styles (don’t pretend you don’t know who that is) has just name-checked Alt-J on Twitter to over 5 million followers. “What does that mean?! I have no idea what that means!” exclaims Sainsbury, in something we reckon is half-mocking, half-fact, before keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton voices what we’re all thinking. “They understand what it means. They know that when they tweet about something, it causes a furore. If they were like, ‘I think the Olympics are rubbish,’ they know that would be picked up by newspaper. Similarly, if they endorse a band, they know what that means.”
Which is true. As it turns out, the one tweet from the curly-haired tyke gained the band around one thousand extra followers and counting, as well as 4,605 retweets and 3,930 favourites at the time of writing. “I’d be interested to see how it relates to album sales,” comments Newman.
“If even two or three percent of his followers bought the album, it’d go straight to number 1 next week,” adds drummer Thom Green, matter-of-factly. Now that’s something to think about.
It’s not as if actual, tangible signs of their domination are difficult to spot either: anyone travelling on the London Underground has probably run into an Alt-J ad, plastered with their pseudo-iconic triangular artwork. “I hadn’t seen one until the other day!” tells Sainsbury. “I had just heard rumours about them, and seen a few Twitter pics.” Was it strange to see? “It was weird. I don’t think it really sinks in until you’ve finished it all and then look back. We were talking about it the other day,” he gestures towards Unger-Hamilton, “and you said you can’t wait until you’re an old man and you can look back at your newspaper clippings and stuff.”
“It’s weird because there are so many people behind what goes into that one poster,” says Green, “and we know it’s happening; it’s all planned to be there, but it’s a weird feeling, actually seeing it. Because we’re so attached to it, it’s not that shocking. Every hour that we’re not sleeping is Alt-J.”
“You get desensitised to the development because you’re just living it day-by-day,” adds in our frontman, “and you see the growth happen very gradually. But, to be honest, you do have moments when you pinch yourself.”
That’s something that must naturally occur during the band’s live performances. Faced with a slew of festival appearances this summer, they have already experienced their fair share of surreal, as Sainsbury reminisces. “When we played Southside Festival in Germany, we were told by our promoter to ‘Expect a couple of people. You’re pretty much opening the festival. You haven’t sold any records in Germany, so don’t expect anyone to come.’ So, we’re sound checking and there’s no one there. Then, as we finish up sound checking, the tent seems to be at capacity, which was...”
“3,000,” answers Newman, without a flicker of doubt.
“We were just like, ‘Wow’. It was so unexpected. I was genuinely expecting to play to ten, twenty people. It was just such an incredible thing."
With a meteoric increase of interest, it should be no time before they’re taking on much larger venues. Already having sold out their October show at London’s Electric Ballroom, they recently announced a one-off show in the capital, at the big much larger O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It sounds like it’s just a matter of time until the band take on much more ambitious live stances. “I think when we get comfortable with playing those stages, it will lead to other things,” says Newman. “We’re going to be doing a lot of live performances for the rest of our career, so we want to not only deliver the music that the audiences have heard from our album, but actually give them an experience. Once we get really comfortable playing on stage, we’ll start to branch out and think ‘How can we engage with the audience?’ Make them leave thinking ‘Wow, their set was great, but did you see what they were doing?’”
For the meantime at least, the band know exactly what their plan is. Riding high on the success that ‘An Awesome Wave’ has already granted them, the four-piece will end their summer playing slots at the iconic Reading & Leeds Festival. The importance of such an opportunity - being that band, playing a smaller stage with a likely audience capable of causing some kind of safety hazard - isn’t lost on them. “My first festival was Leeds,” explains Green. “So, yeah, it’s weird that we’re playing. I was in bands at that time when I was younger, and we’d have a look at the drummer onstage and think, ‘Man, he’s got the best job in the world.’” There’s no denying that something special is going to happen that Bank Holiday Weekend. World domination awaits.
Alt-J’s debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’ is out now via Infectious. The band will play Reading Festival on 24th August and Leeds Festival on 25th August.
Taken from the August 2012 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.
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