Mercury Music Prize Winners Alt-J: "We Can't Believe People Like Our Songs"

Alt-J, the band that cannot be pigeon-holed, speak on performing live, touring the world, their love of triangles and pissing off of a balcony in Hollywood...
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As tales of rock n’ roll debauchery go, it’s not bad for beginners. On their first visit to America at the start of this month, alt-J’s synth-player Gus Unger-Hamilton and bassist Gwil Sainsbury were fined $100 each for urinating from their hotel balcony in LA’s Beverly Hills. So far, so Jim Morrison, but the pair stress it wasn’t actually meant as a statement of rockstar excess. Gus takes up the tale: “It’s disgusting and not even very rock n’ roll but true. In reality, someone was in the loo and we were both really desperate. Apparently this is frowned on in Hollywood.” Adds Gwil: “It was purely bodily necessity!”

The pair – together with frontman Joe Jerome-Newman and drummer Tom Green – are preparing for their set at Manchester’s FutureEverything festival, where they’re headlining the New Sounds Of The North gig on the first floor of an office block in Spinningfields, Manchester’s terrifyingly landscaped financial district. It’s a rudimentary set-up, with black drapes on either side of the room blocking out the evening sunlight, but they’re not going to be playing venues like this for much longer – this is a band on the edge of a real moment. Their debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’, set for release on May 28, has gained glowing reviews across the board, their single Breezeblocks – a slice of inventive, harmony-drenched indie rock about Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are – is all over MTV and Lauren Laverne has already had them in for a session on 6Music.

They are, then, a band in demand, but far from being all talked out, Gus, a towering figure in black-framed specs, reveals he actually likes interviews: “It’s like therapy, you get to talk about yourself, who you are, what you’re all about.” Gwil chips in: “Yeah, and it’s a chance to talk to someone who’s not in the band!” It certainly makes a welcome change from stumbling through monosyllabic interviews with mumbling, press-adverse indie bands who act like every word spoken is a part of their soul they’ll never get back.

"In reality, someone was in the loo and we were both really desperate. Apparently this is frowned on in Hollywood."

Despite the hefty fine, the pair are both wide-eyed when talking about their recent American jaunt, which saw them play shows at The Bardot in LA and the Mercury Lounge in New York. They both seem genuinely shellshocked to have achieved this level of popularity already. As the elfin Gwil puts it: “It’s weird, starting a song like Breezeblocks in America and people actually going [makes loud whooping noise]. It’s the internet, man!” (Gus wryly adds: “Yeah, the internet’s going to be massive, trust us.”)

You sense they’re going to have to get used to that level of adulation fairly quickly though. At the Manchester show, where they’re playing alongside other buzz-generating northern acts like No Ceremony and Money, it’s clear that they already have a devoted fanbase. The audience are word-perfect to singles ‘Matilda’ and ‘Breezeblocks’, while younger fans make the band’s trademark triangle sign above their heads with their hands. Indeed, triangles are a band obsession: the name alt-J derives from the keyboard shortcut for the triangle symbol on a Mac, while they’ve also paid homage to them on the track Tesellate. Hard-hitting hack that I am, I ask them the important question: What’s your favourite kind of triangle? Gus goes for obtuse triangles, “the ones that have three sides that are all different lengths” [He’s actually talking about scalene triangles – maths geek ed], whereas Gwil thinks long and hard before going for the humble isosceles.

Having met at Leeds University, the foursome were originally named Daljit Dhaliwal, after the Al-Jazeera newscaster, before rebranding themselves as FILMS with the idea that each song would be based on a different film – a great concept somewhat hampered by the fact promoters continually confused them with South Carolina garage band The Films. The name was promptly jettisoned, although cinema is still a major influence – Matilda, for instance, is based on a character in Luc Besson’s Leon.

Asked about their favourite alt-J moments so far, Gus says there and too many to count but Gwil nominates The Great Escape festival last year in Brighton: “I just can’t get over the fact that people like our songs. There was a lot of drunk people there, who were so into Breezeblocks and Fitzpleasure, I just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. You never get to see a crowd when you’re in one, but when you’re a band on-stage you can see people’s faces and see them smiling.”

The bulk of An Awesome Wave was recorded over three intense weeks in January at the studio of their producer Charlie Andrews (of Laurel Collective) in Brixton, although tracks like Tessellate and Matilda date back around three years. The pair are clearly proud of it though, and rightly so. It’s a remarkably assured debut, from the rolling breezy pop of Something Good to the synth juggernaut of the Last Exit to Brooklyn-inspired Fitzpleasure.

There’s obvious influences – Wild Beasts, who the band toured with in March this year, and Elliott Smith spring immediately to mind. But the band’s blog, run by drummer Tom (“his area of expression. Drummers need that or they get angry,” says Gwil) also showcases a love of electronic music, from the pioneering Ninja Tune label to techno and dubstep, while Gus is a former member of an early music choir. There is, then, a clear desire to avoid being pigeonholed. Take Taro, the final track on An Awesome Wave, about the love affair between war photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro: a beautiful acoustic ballad that ends with an insistent rhythm straight out of Bhangra.

"There was a lot of drunk people there, who were so into Breezeblocks and Fitzpleasure, I just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing."

Ultimately, alt-J inhabit that genreless space that has grown out of the rise of file-sharing and Spotify. It’s telling that when I ask them what they’re currently listening to, Gwil answers immediately: “The internet man, the internet!” He nominates Tom as the band member with the most interesting music taste: “I think he spends most time than any of us really cruising the internet like a shark.”
Chief songwriting duties are delegated to Jerome-Newman, who Gwil jokes “spends a lot of time in the bathroom with his acoustic guitar singing to himself.” His ideas are then worked up by the band, a process that often involves completely dismantling and restructuring the original ideas. Despite the complexity of some of their songs, there’s also an element of self-imposed restraint to their songwriting. As Gwil puts it: “I think restriction is a pretty good thing when you’re trying to create something, it really allows you to focus in on what you’re able to do and not the possibility of what you could do.”

For the rest of the summer the band will be hitting the festival circuit, which stops at Bestival, Latitude, “maybe Reading and Leeds”, Belgium’s Pukklepop and a festival date in Japan alongside Radiohead, as well as dates in Holland and Spain. Since the band spent time sharing a house with Gwil’s girlfriend, they are used to sharing confined spaces, but Gwil is eloquent on the strangeness of overseas touring: “It’s always weird. Cologne is my example, because I’d never been to Cologne before. We arrive in Cologne and go straight to the venue, into a dark basement, waiting around for a couple of hours, playing, and then going to our hotel in Dortmund. In my mind, I hadn’t really been there – although I’d been there in space.” We joke that they should follow the lead of Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter, who used to get the band’s tour bus to drop him 70 kilometres from the venue and then cycle there every night.

Before I go, I ask the inevitable question addressed to all new bands: any good Spinal Tap moments? Gwil says they happen virtually every day, but gives me his most recent example: “Last night we finished our set to a packed Kazimier club in Liverpool and we’re like “Thanks, we’re alt-J, have a good night”, we turned round and all the exits off the stage are blocked by the drums and the lights are still on, we’re just left there thinking “how do we get off the stage!” For a band used to shunning the limelight  and who still try to avoid their having faces appearing in publicity shots, all this being looked at is clearly going to take a while to get used to.

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