There is something truly unique about the music that pours out of the four lads who comprise the experimental, indie outfit, Alt-J. It has a sparkling, melodious quality in the way the guitars fizzle in a bed of digital mist. But there are odd chanting harmonies, crunchy riffs that'll snap your teeth, and, most notably, a disjointed, percussive approach that's mightier than all. It's all helped to stew a bit of a phenomenon on the band's side of the Atlantic. Why just today the band snatched themselves a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Prize for their debut, An Awesome Wave (which is just about the best way to describe what lies within). Here in the US, the band is currently spreading the gospel one city at a time. Recently, that meant a quick stop at The Cutting Room Studios in NYC for a live-to-air session with our friends at KEXP Seattle. In its' aftermath, we're obviously converted...and we don't think you stand a chance either.
- It's 90. 3 KEXP and the time has come that we have Alt-J on the air, live from the Cutting Room Studios in New York City. - This song's called Tessellate. She-she-she-she only ever-ver-ver-ver-ver-ver walks to, to count, count her steps Eighteen-teen strides and she stops to abide By the law that she herself has set That eighteen steps is one complete set And before the next Nine right and nine left She looks up, up,up at the blue And whispers to all of the above Don't let me drown, don't breath alone No kicks, no pangs, no broken bones Never let me sink, always feel at home No sticks, no shanks and no stones Never leave it too late, always enjoy the taste Of the great, great, great great world of hearts As all dogs everywhere bark, bark, bark, bark it's worth knowing Like all good fruit the balance of life is in the ripe and ruin Bite chunks out of me You're a shark and I'm swimming My heart still thumps as I bleed And all your friends come sniffing Triangles are my favorite shape Three points where two lines meet Toe to toe, back to back, let's go, my love; it's very late 'Till morning comes, let's tessellate And go alone my flower And keep whole my lovely you Wild green stones alone my lover And keep us on my heart Three guns, one goes off One's empty, one's not quick enough One burn, one red, one green Search the graves while the camera spins Chunks of you will sink down to seals Blubber rich in mourning, they'll nosh you up Yes, they'll nosh the love away but it's fair to say You will still haunt me Triangles are my favorite shape Three points where two lines meet Toe to toe, back to back, let's go my love; it's very late 'Till morning comes, let's tessellate - Well the first song we did is a song called Tessellate. That's about a kind of relationship... - It's about sex basically. - It's about sex, yeah, and the things you do with someone you like, and it kind of uses the kind of tessellation as a metaphor for getting it on. And there's a lot of movie references in that. Well, there's one movie reference. There isn't a lot. There's one. So that's quite a simple song. It's kind of textbook, singer-songwriter, sing about doomed love. Well, people do have said that they find it hard to define our music. I think it was never our ambition to have music which people would struggle to kind of categorize. We just really focus on music that we like hearing as friends. You know, we stay in our little bubble, which has been for the last year, a conservatory in Cambridge, which is where we were living back in the UK. And we just really keep our heads down and stay out of trouble and just focus on yeah, the stuff that we like to hear and you know, try and impress each other, and that's really what we do. And I think because of that, it probably does sound a little bit different. We don't wear our influences on our sleeves. Yeah we kind of, We do have influences but they're sort of embedded into our subconscious that we can't really tell you where they are and where they're from, really. Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la Tra-la-la In your snatch fits pleasure broom-shaped pleasure Deep greedy and Googling every corner Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la, Tra-la-la-la-la Dead in the middle Of the C-O double-M -O-N Little did I know then That the Mandela Boys soon become Mandela Men Tall woman, pull the pylons down And wrap them around the necks Of all the feckless men that queue to be the next Steepled Fingers, ring la la la la la la la leaders Queue, queue jumpers Rock fist paper scissors, la la la la la la la lingered fluffers Be Quiet In your hoof lies the heartland Where we tent for our treasure, pleasure, leisure, leisure leisure, It's all in your eyes In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure Aaaaaaaah Deep greedy and Googling every corner Tra, la, la, Tra, la, Tra-a, la, la la la la la la la Ohhh, blended by the lights - Fitzpleasure is very -- - It's our Bohemian Rhapsody. - Yeah, when we wrote it I think we had various parts written for a while, and we kind of in between practicing and things, it came up now and again and it kind of... It was crafted kind of subconsciously, I think. When we came to record it, obviously, we had to kind of really consider it, but it's based on a book called Elastics. It's a Brooklyn... Just one particular part, and it's one my favorites to play, definitely, to play live, just because I, as a fan of the track myself, I just love how interesting -- You don't know what's going to be next. It's really kind of exciting to listen to, the sounds, and it's produced really well, and people seem to really like it a lot. It's a great live track. - Well we... this is our debut album. It's called An Awesome Wave, and yeah, it's about ten tracks on the song. On the album, sorry... On the song? On the album, and we've got some interludes in there just to kind of break it up, like appetizers kind of. Just before you kind of go through heavy and sinful tracks. And yeah, we're really, really proud of it. I think we were writing the album for the past couple of years. Some of the songs have been around for many years and yeah, we finally got into the studio and started recording the album and with Charlie Andrew, our producer, and he did a great job, and we were really happy with it. Yeah, I think we're desperate for it to go out in the States, like really can't wait. The reception we've got when we've been playing live has been spectacular and I just can't wait for the album to drop. I think we're all really stoked. C-O-double M-O-N a wave, an awesome wave That rushes skin and widens in flooded veins, Breath in, exhale, I've poked a nerve He'll slap me like a whale Slaps the C-O-double M-O-N Tide out, tide in, a flood of blood to the heart in the fear slipstreams Breath in, exhale, I've poked a nerve You'll slap me like a whale Slaps the C-O-double M-O-N Flood, flood, flood, flood of blood, blood, blood to the heart, heart, heart To the heart, heart, heart, heart, flood, flood, flood, flood of blood blood, blood to the heart, heart, heart, to the heart, heart, heart, heart Flood, flood, flood, flood of blood, blood, blood to the heart, heart, heart To the heart, heart, heart, heart, flood, flood, flood, flood of blood blood, blood to the heart, heart, heart, to the heart, heart, heart, heart - The next track we played was Bloodflood, which is my favorite track, because I get to play an electric guitar on it. It's really fun. And it's about Joe getting beaten up on Southampton Common, right? - Yeah, kind of. - Yeah? Holding your own or did you run? - Well it's more to do with... it's not necessarily getting, you know, beaten up. It's more to do with that fear you get when you think you're going to get beaten up. When you get sort of like approached by youths who -- - Ask you for the time! - Ask you for the time. A large in number, large in size and you know that they're younger than you by about six or seven years, and it's really kind of disconcerting. It's really embarrassing as well because you know that you're going to get the life kicked out of you. And so it's about that and that kind of that fear you get. The adrenaline rush you get when you sort of get that rush of blood to the heart, a flood of blood to the heart, as the lyric goes. Yeah, it's about that really. - I think if you're going to make an album, you kind of want it to have some sort of some concept. Not necessarily to be a concept album. It's got to have some sort of fluidity to it and some sort of sense that it's a body of work that's been made to fit together. Not just a collection of songs that you've written and you just chucked together and done an album. So I think, yeah, there is a journey to it definitely. I think, as you were mentioning it earlier, the interludes are a real sort of fundamental part of that, of easing you in and out of these sort of different moods. - Once again, you guys, so one... not just standard, as I mentioned before, one of my favorite records of the year so far and it's extremely original sound. You guys are extremely talented. That drummer is insane. Great vocals. I'm just loving it you guys. So thank you so much for sharing your wonderful music with our great listeners. Really appreciate it. - Well thank you for playing us. I think it's brilliant for us as well, so thank you so much. She may contain the urge to run away So hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks Cetirizine your fever's gripped me again Never kisses--all you ever send are full stops, la, la, la la Do you know where the wild things go? They go along to take your honey, la, la, la la Break down, now weep, Build up breakfast, now let's eat, my love, my love, love, love, la, la, la Muscle to muscle and toe to toe The fear has gripped me but here I go My heart sinks as I jump up Your hand grips hand as my eyes shut Ohhhh Ohhhh Do you know where the wild things go? They go along to take your honey Break down, now sleep Build up breakfast, now let's eat My love my love, love, love She bruises, coughs, she splutters pistol shots Hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks She's morphine, queen of my vaccine My love, my love, love, love, la, la, la Muscle to muscle and toe to toe The fear has gripped me but here I go My heart sinks as I jump up Your hand grips hand as my eyes shut She may contain the urge to run away So hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks Germolene, disinfect the scene My love, my love, love, love But please don't go, I love you so, my lovely Please don't go, please don't go I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, please don't go I love you so, I love you so Please break my heart, hey Please don't go, please don't go I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, please don't go I love you so, I love you so Please break my heart Please don't go, I'll eat you whole, I love you so, I love you so, Please don't go, I'll eat you whole I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, I'll eat you whole I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, I'll eat you whole I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, I'll eat you whole I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, I'll eat you whole I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, I'll eat you whole I love you so, I love you so Please don't go, I'll eat you whole I love you so, I love you so - Last song was Breezeblocks which is kind of a... I really enjoy playing Breezeblocks as well because it's got this sort of symphonette. I think it's kind of about the darker side of love and what relationships kind of can do to you, but sort of puts it in the prison of the book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak sort of, "Please don't go. I'll eat you whole. I love you so. " It's kind of like you're loving somebody so much that when they want to leave, you're kind of attached to them and kill them. - For me when we're playing live on stage and looking at the audience, there's nothing better than seeing an individual lost in the moment, so that they've got their eyes closed, and they're just completely, they're in a trance almost. That's a fantastic thing to see, because they're feeling it so much that kind of closing down one of their senses like so they can sort of absorb as much as they can you know through their old ears. That's a lovely thing to see, so that's a quite specific thing. That's something that I hope everyone does tonight where I hope everyone has their eyes closed. - Yeah.
alt-J (?)'s name takes a little explaining. Pronounced "alt-J", the delta sign is created when you hold down the alt key on your computer keyboard and punch 'J' on a Mac computer. The symbol has a deeper meaning for the band, as guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury notes, "in mathematical equations it's used to show change," and the band's relatively new name came at a turning point in their lives.
Gwil, Joe Newman [guitar/vocals], Gus Unger-Hamilton [keyboards] and Thom Green [drums] met at Leeds University in 2007. Gus studied English Literature; the other three Fine Art. In their second year of studies, Joe played Gwil a handful of his own songs inspired by his guitar-playing dad and hallucinogens, and the pair began recording in their dorm rooms with Gwil acting as producer on Garageband.
Needless to say, the response to Joe's hushed falsetto yelps and Gwil's rudimentary sampling skills was good. When Thom was played the tracks he joined the band straight away. "I hadn't heard anything like it," he says. "It was music I was looking for, I just didn't know I was. I just loved it."
Gus completed the band's lineup and together first as Daljit Dhaliwal and then as Films the four friends spent the next two years playing around town, developing a precise and unique brand of alt. pop that draws on poignant folk verses, crushing synths, smart hip hop syncopations and tight vocal harmonies. They dropped the moniker of Films in 2007, largely to avoid confusing the band with Californian punk troupe The Films. alt-J (?) gave them a unique name to go with the unique 'folk-step' that they now concoct in the basement of a terrace house in Cambridgeshire.
Admiration and favourable comparisons have come thick and fast for alt-J (?). Before the release of their instantly sold out debut single on Loud And Quiet last October, the band were described as "Nick Drake meets Gangsta Rap," and they were likened to Wild Beasts, 'In Rainbows' era Radiohead, The xx and Anthony & The Johnsons acts acclaimed for their ability to create the kind of patient, sophisticated, intricate music that alt-J (?) do.
An early demo of the skittish, euphoric 'Breezeblocks' gained healthy radio play without even being released and alt-J (?)'s Soundcloud generated over 70,000 plays in its first 6 months with little to no promotion.
From Joe's high soul cry and Thom's refusal to drum with cymbals (he started with saucepans because he couldn't fit a full drum kit in Gwil's bedroom where the band first practiced), to the sparse guitars and Gus' delicate key clunks on songs like 'Bloodflood', a neat sound-bite for ?'s music is yet to be coined, and perhaps never will be. And by challenging what constitutes folk, hip hop, indie and pop music, the band have quickly found themselves in the studio at the beginning of 2012, recording their debut album for Infectious Music with long-time producer Charlie Andrew (Micachu & The Shapes, Eugene McGuinness).
Veering wildly from psychedelic avant pop to skeletal folktronica, the finished album promises to trade in understated beauty one minute and epic oddities the next, just as you'd expect from a debut album that tackles everything from love to bullfighting to the heroic life of 1930s war photographer Gerda Taro, crushed by a tank on the frontline. Other tracks are inspired by cinema, including 'Matilda' (about Natalie Portman's character in Luc Besson's Leon) and the Good The Bad And The Ugly-referencing 'Tessellate'.