When a band creeps into wider critical consciousness and commercial viability in earnest, on their own terms, they deserves plaudits. Applaud then the quiet, unwitting and strikingly natural rise of Cambridge four-piece Alt-J (∆).
They have achieved the retention of a certain intrigue, their carefully crafted collective mythology, a withdrawn charm and a reluctant approach to publicity that rarely smacks of pretence. And they’ve secured the backing of left-field hacks and mainstream radio DJs alike which, when combined with their recent Mercury Prize nod, presents them as true alt-rock contenders. I spoke to their synth-man Gus Unger-Hamilton about the workings of what’s behind them, and the interesting territory ahead.
The band formed at the University of Leeds, their humour evident in previous name Daljit Daliwhal (an Al-Jazeera newscaster), and early motivations present in their second incarnation as Films. “We’re quite obsessed with watching films. Over and over. Getting a lot out of them,” Gus admits.
Obsession forms a large part of their repertoire, from the brooding “Tesselate” to playfully sinister radio favourite “Breezeblocks”. Their own artistic obsessions reflect their respect for context, their steady work-rate and attention to detail. “I mean we’ve got two songs about the film Leon, which some people find quite funny. I think it’s nice to not just let things like books and films wash over you, I like to engage with them, reference them in songs, keep them alive. I think that’s quite nice”.
The tone of the music on well-received debut ‘An Awesome Wave’ pivots not only around personal fixation, but also a definite scent of haze, with songs such as “Bloodflood” coalescing into fuzzy stoner meditations. “I wouldn’t say it’s a druggy album per se. I think [drugs] have had a certain impact on us, a lot of people mention them in association with us, that we…clearly smoke a lot of weed. I don’t know if that’s quite true but…we do.”
Their listener base does happen to chime particularly well with the more thoughtful, more herbal-minded student types, the type that the band themselves were. Their time at university is evident in the material, understated intelligence combined with a confessional and grounded honesty. They’ve not changed in being realistic about their situation, or about the role of providence.
“We were never really of the mind of ‘ooh let’s go down the careers fair’, go through that process. I’d pretty much resigned myself to the fact that as an English graduate of this generation, I’d probably not be walking straight into a job. So it’s quite fortunate that things happened the way they did”.
The irresistible pull of diversification of the demographic could indeed isolate those more thoughtful, doomed student fans. If ‘An Awesome Wave’ does go on to clinch the Mercury, the ensuing exposure and heightened distribution could send Alt-J (∆) the way of previous winners. Their tunes could be appropriated to underpin tawdry yoof tee-vee, leaving them only a Skrillex re-jig away from the realm of the uniLAD.
“Who knows, maybe uniLADs still buy albums, so that’d be a good thing. We’re not incredibly precious about who likes us or listens to our music. I think sort of…all for one. It’s always healthy to have more than one demographic listening to you. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed”.
“I don’t think it’d change us too much. Undeniably a win does a lot of things for you but I just think it’d be nice if more people would hear the record. We’re not opposed to media exposure to be honest”.
The shortlist this year may be inconsistent, but the likes of Richard Hawley, Field Music, Jessie Ware and even their friends Django Django will make it hard-fought. “I rate [our competition] very highly, I mean there are some really great albums in there. It’s just nice to be on the list, being nominated is a prize in itself. The fact that there’s just one winner sort of means…everyone wins”.
Their inclusion in the Mercury line-up comes as just another reason to be pleased with themselves, though with a certain degree of removal, as the band currently travel the US. “It’s gone great, really good. We’ve just finished our headline tour, and I think all but one of those ten gigs were sold out, which is mad. Just having fans in America is quite an incredible feeling.”
The band thrives in a live setting, having crafted their intricate and frenetic setlists on the Leeds circuit. Their autonomy from ‘the rest’ is reiterated constantly, along with their dislike for labels and the cobbling together of disparate acts into a ‘movement’. “We loved playing at the Brudenell, a great place to play. It’s a good old alt-ish venue for all the right reasons, and amazing bands have played there. Although we didn’t really get into the ‘music scene’, I didn’t really see us as part of any of that.”
Whilst Alt-J (∆) gigs favour the more intimate atmosphere of the student arena, the inevitable need for expansion is apparent to them, with a tour booked for next May that takes in Brixton Academy, amongst other larger venues.
“We’re willing to work hard and do what’s expected of us up to a point. You can’t have your cake and eat it. You have to accept that if you want people to like your music, then you need to expand to accommodate it.”
This is where I see a potential dilemma with Alt-J (∆); while I have no reason to suspect that their straight-up humility is anything but sincere, their desire to be set apart and unique clashes with their cake-faced ‘come-one, come-all’ attitude to the Alt-J (∆) experience. Just as they may not be ‘precious’ about the listenership, they must be willing to compromise their dislike of pigeon holes in order to expand their project and embrace the wider market.
Luckily at this stage their music does happen to support the ‘no labels’ tag. It flits between genre and ideas, and if they can sustain their intelligence, their grounding and their creativity in the glare of wider hype, then they will deserve the continued applause. And above all, they deserve to enjoy it, as Gus notes. “We’re not quite partying with the Peaches Geldofs of this world yet. But no doubt that’s all going to happen soon…”.By Dan Cere