ALT J AKA “∆”
Story by Kate Davies
Western society is primarily composed of and driven by trends. Whether it is in fashion, politics, family life, or celebrity culture, “trend” is one of the most oft-utilised synonyms to describe how the Western world functions on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this is why such an undefinable group as Alt-J has ironically become one of the latest trends that 20-something hipsters have snatched up in recent musical memory. Composed of four British lads who met at Leeds University in 2007, this quirky group successfully blends hip hop, folk, pop, shoegaze, post-rock, and whatever other fancy genre-bending name you can think of. Whether the band believes it is trendy to be “un-trendy” or simply create original music as they see fit, their penchant for sonically-unique production has led them to swift popularity. Hot off the heels of the release of their debut album An Awesome Wave, they have already been nominated for the 2012 Mercury Music Prize (the Holy Grail of British music recognition) and are booked solid until the summer of 2013. Speaking with lead singer and guitarist Joe Newman, I wanted to find out the real meaning behind their name as well as what really makes them tick.
Okay, so I have a question that you’re probably asked often…
What’s up with our name? [laughs]
Yes. And I know the basis of it – I know it translates to “delta” (on a Mac computer, pressing “Alt” and “J” creates the ∆ sign). But I also know you guys studied English Lit and Fine Art in university, so I was wondering where the math aspect of “delta” comes in?
Well, it wasn’t like we were fans of math and thought of the symbol which represents “change” in physics and maths. It really came about because we had to change our name – we were called Films originally and there was also a band in America called The Films. There was about a month or two months where we were really struggling and our management was like “you’ve got to come up with a name now”, because we were being put on the bill for gigs without an actual name. So, Gwil (the guitarist/bassist) came up with Alt-J because he was on a Mac one day and typed in “Alt-J” and the delta sign came up and he was like “that’s kinda cool”.
Yeah, the name’s fitting too because it brings you into the modern world through the fact that you have to actually use a computer to create it.
Did you find that using such modern-day outlets as Soundcloud was a huge help in getting your music out there?
Actually, I think what got us out there was just working really hard on the songs – like, it took years and years to get these songs right. We spent like 4 years creating the songs. I think what sorted us out was refining the songs, and that was our strength. That was our main, core strength. And yeah, putting them on social media websites, that super-helped. That’s one of the most helpful sides of the Internet: the fact that you can put these things on those kind of sites. It reaches so many people you couldn’t reach on the radio and you couldn’t reach on print. It’s amazing.
When I listened to An Awesome Wave I was shocked by how mature it is sonically. It really gives the impression that you guys have your unique sound figured out: it’s almost like you’re three albums into your career already. How did that come together, that sound? Was it a collective “hey, this is great!” or was there one person in the group who was like “let’s go in this direction”?
I think it was all really relaxed. Like, we first started meeting up at the beginning of university – we were friends already. And then we discovered that we had really good musical chemistry. We all played instruments and I had some songs that I was writing and these guys responded really really well to the songs. And we do come from really different musical backgrounds. Gus was a choruster at a boys school. Gwil, he listened to a lot of hip hop. And Tom comes from a heavy metal background: grunge-core and stuff like that. We were actually quite patient with getting things sorted. We were just like: “we have all the time in the world; we’re at university for 3 years”. So we could take as much time as we’d like. We didn’t have jobs, we were being subsidised a) by our parents, and b) by the state through student loans. And it was a perfect opportunity to kind of just really relax. But we did take it quite seriously from the start as well.
Writing-wise, did you all collaborate or is that something that developed later on in the production stage? I know production is a very important aspect for you guys – obviously it’s not solely about vocals and melody. Those intricate instrumentals which define your sound evidently seemed to develop later on in production and in the studio. So, do you find most of your songs are written after the fact?
Well, normally what happens is the structure of the song – the melody and the basic notation – is all written by me on guitar in my own time somewhere. Normally it’s in the bedroom, or in the bathroom. Good acoustics! And then I take that song to the band – they write their parts, and then we work out restructuring the song as a group. And then we get this song that we’re all kind of feeling quite comfortable with and we take it to our producer, Charlie, and we work with Charlie to restructure it. It’s very hands-on and everyone has an opinion, and it’s all kind of quite democratic like that.
If there was any cover you could do as Alt-J, what would you choose?
Well, we do have plans to do some covers. We did do a cover which was “Dancing in the Moonlight” by Thin Lizzy. So we did that, it was really nice. I was saying that I always wanted to do Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”. I don’t know if that would suit Alt-J. Personally, I think it would. But there are some other covers that we’ve got, but I shan’t say because I don’t want to spoil!
Okay, a surprise for later! So, you’ve been doing a lot of touring lately. You toured throughout the summer and did a lot of festivals in the UK and throughout Europe. And then you have a full UK tour coming in the fall. What do you like about being on the roaWell, I think one of the great things about being on the road is just seeing the land. The world [laughs]…you know! Meeting the people who are local to that area of the world and who know that area really well. Yeah, and just people that are really keen to hear music. That’s something that’s amazing: that you can discover fans across the world and cross so many cultural boundaries and language boundaries. That’s a really weird feeling but a really rewarding one.
Do you find when you’re on tour that you guys each fill a specific role in the band?
No, I think one of the reasons why we all became friends is because we all share the same sense of humour. There are slight differences obviously, but we all really enjoy each others company. It is trying at times because naturally you can be best friends with someone, but if you’re in a van and a hotel with them and you work with them on top of that, things can wear thin. You’re also, you know…not showering [laughs]. So, you get very used to your band-mates and I think one of the down sides of being in a band but also one of the poignant things of being in a band is you become so close to that group of people that you turn into a married couple. So you only talk to them when you need to – and you eat in silence. When we were in Cambridge we used to go to the pub on a Friday night and everyone would be catching up, but we would just be sat in the booth just not saying anything to each other, just drinking a pint.
Well, it’s nice to have that closeness and brother-ship amongst band members. In terms of your show tonight, I’m curious to see how you guys take your sound and recreate it on stage because I know there are a lot of elements you have to work into it. Do you have a favourite song that comes across really well on stage or one that you find really difficult to duplicate?
Well, it really depends what mood we’re in. I do like playing “Taro” cuz it’s a song I know that the band all like. And so when you’re playing something that you know that they all like it means you get into it a lot more because you know that everyone else is getting into it. “Tessellate” is a fun song to play because we do the interlude before it. “Dissolve Me” I used to think that we weren’t going to play onstage because I was worried that there wasn’t enough going on – it was very kind of simplified, but the more we’ve played it the more we’ve enjoyed playing it live the way it is. And we kind of have this thing onstage where what we’re playing is what you see as an audience. There’s no backing track or anything like that so, you know, we keep it real. [laughs]
That’s good. So I know in the past you’ve kept quite a low profile in terms of your image. I have really noticed a concerted effort in videos and your other releases to not market the band itself. Was that an intentional thing? Is that a philosophy you want to try to stick with?
Yeah, I mean, with music videos it’s a wonderful opportunity to create some really interesting cinema, and you don’t necessarily need the band involved in that. You can really portray everything the song is saying through a piece of work which avoids the clichés of cutting to a band playing their instruments and singing to the camera. It also makes it easier for directors to work on ideas. And also, I don’t personally want to be singing to the camera or even being in the film unless it’s appropriate.
What are Alt-J’s plans for the future now that you’ve released your first album? You’re beginning to tour a lot and obviously things are looking up for you guys. For example, you’ve been nominated for the Mercury Prize, which is amazing.
Yeah, it is amazing. It’s super exciting and it’s like, the best thing ever, you know. That kind of recognition. For most people that’s the album award that you dream of in Britain.
So it seems like you’ve got a bright future ahead of you!
Well, so long as we keep writing interesting songs then hopefully it’s a bright future. Hopefully!
Alt-J are currently playing shows across the United States before embarking on their European-wide tour. Check out their singles (as well as the awesome videos to accompany them, which do NOT feature the band singing into the camera) “Tessellate” and “Taro”.