The Last Detail: Exposed Meets Alt-J
Cambridge four-piece Alt-J are, by any respectable definition, the BAND OF THE MOMENT.
Emerging only last year from the independent label scene they've become kings of daytime Radio One and are receiving rave reviews and industry plaudits here and across the pond. Andy Hill caught up with them before their show at The Harley last month.
The devil is, as they say, always in the detail. Alt-J are a bunch of guys, I find, EXTREMELY keen on the detail. Take the name, which is technically "∆", the symbol that appears when you press the Alt key on a Mac and hold J. Neat, huh? "∆" manages to attain that rare and spectacular holy trinity of band name perfection – it's international, it looks good on a t-shirt and it reads like a nerdy social media in-joke. "The name fits quite nicely I think with the aesthetic," says bassist Gwil Sainsbury. "It's often used in mathematical equations, to show change."
That last statement rather nicely sums up the quite profound level of geekiness we're dealing with here. I mean of course 'geek' in the modern sense, as in to be unspokenly coupled with 'chic'. They're cool. Jo Whiley said so. "Ha, that was pretty funny. We saw her the other day in the street, when we were trying to hail a taxi. Would she have recognized us? I doubt it. I wanted to shout out 'HEY, WE'RE ALT-J, YOU LIKE US!" But no, off she went".
The band certainly don't go out of their way to court recognition, shying away from standard facial shots in all their promotional material. "We think it's better that way," says singer and lead songwriter Joe. "It's really embarrassing to just stand there, leaning against a wall staring into the middle distance looking all moody for a photo. I'd hate to see my own mug staring out at me from a record cover. No thanks."
So what of the music? The best description I've heard yet is probably ‘folk-step’; plaintive themes and sunlit harmonic verses give way with scant notice to dirty dancehall drops and fat beats throughout ‘An Awesome Wave’, their strange sprawling beast of a debut LP. "We worked really hard on getting everything perfect. We're competent musicians and all that, but it's the dedication and attention to detail that I think really set us apart." It's like a fluke mash-up between a modern dance record and a really good movie soundtrack, which is apt because a lot of the tunes relate to films. "Matilda is about the movie Leon, by Luc Besson. Tessellate references The Good, The Bad and The Ugly… as well as being basically just a metaphor for sex. At the beginning I went through a period of just wanting to write about films, in fact we were called Films for a while, but we decided to change because there was already a band called The Films." Were you worried about a potential legal tussle? "Ha, we'd have definitely beaten them to a pulp!" adds drummer Thom, with a Sheldon-from-the-Big-Bang-Theory-esque honk of laughter. "I'm joking, they're in America, so it wouldn't have mattered."
Earlier this year the band flew to the States for a couple of showcase gigs in New York and LA, and wound up signed to heavyweight US label Atlantic. Marvels keyboardist and former choirboy Gus Unger-Hamilton – "There we were all of a sudden, in an office in the middle of Manhattan, with our lawyer on the phone. They weren't going to let us go without signing. It sounds stupid now, I guess, but believe it or not it was a pretty tedious day. All that stuff – the run up to gigs, even recording – just feels like work when you're doing it. You'd think you'd be starstruck, but it all just feels normal. The most surreal thing of all was when we started getting played on the radio. You think when you hear a band on the radio it's like, 'they've definitely made it – wow!', but whatever Fearne Cotton says we were still all living in a 2 bedroom terraced house with my girlfriend and signing on. Of course, then you go home and it all stops and you're like, whoa, I've just been to LA."
Currently touring the UK ("this is only the third date so we're still ok for fresh laundry"), I'm curious how such thoughtful and introverted chaps cope with the attention of big crowds. "I don't suppose you ever really get used to it," says smiley, soft-spoken Gwil. "It's pretty amazing though, to see two or three hundred faces just looking up at you. In Brighton they were singing all the words to [current single] Breezeblocks. I just can't help myself laughing at the surrealness of that." Fans of Breezeblocks (and to be fair it is a total banger) can enter a competition via the band's website to remix it and possibly be included on a future release.
"And yeah, it's strange to be on the other side of the big gig thing all of a sudden," chimes in Gus. "When I used to go to gigs I'd make a point of picking a member then just shouting out their name again and again to get their attention. Once made Caleb Followhill out of Kings of Leon smile at me. Big moment."
Time has somewhat gotten away from us, and I must leave the band to prepare for their set. Somehow, I imagine as I roll a cigarette and drain my second pint, their preparations more run along the lines of a crate of Innocent smoothies and a crack at the Su-Doku. Just saying.
The venue is packed with happy sunburned faces and, as they take to the stage, I'm genuinely taken aback by the fact the crowd know almost all the words to the songs. The lads are indeed very fine musicians, particularly Thom on drums who uses saucepans rather than cymbals (which may sound gimmicky but is in fact a welcome breath of fresh air, allowing the palimpsest of motifs weaved by the others to really shine out). Joe as a frontman is modest in his banter, but belts out the big numbers with gusto, grinning almost to himself every time the crowd goes nuts. You can tell watching that the adulation means so much to these quiet, serious and unfathomably talented guys who just want to share their songs. The rest, after all, is just detail.
Alt-J return to Sheffield this month when they headline Friday night at The Bowery for Tramlines as part of the Uneven Blonde line-up. Head to their soundcloud page for more.
Words by Andy Hill