Alt-J: "We’ve learnt the hard way.”
Five years in the making, An Awesome Wave landed ∆ – aka Alt-J –2012’s Mercury Music Prize. All a cappella harmonies, electronic beats and guitar angles, the 13 track debut has seen the ‘folk-step’ outfit top charts in the UK, the former Leeds University students selling out two October headline shows in Australia in less than five minutes.
Formerly called Daljit Dhaliwal and then Films, Alt-J will return to our shores in February, when they’ll join the line-up of the travelling St Jerome’s Laneway bill. “Is it a travelling festival?” quizzes singer/guitarist/chief songwriter Joe Newman. “It’s a bit like Reading and Leeds, right? I’ve always wanted to come. I grew up, as most English kids did, on Neighbours, so I’ve built a fascination with Australia.”
A few weeks before the Mercury win is handed down, Joe sat down to talk through a few of the band’s bigger songs and Alt-J’s not-so-overnight success. They may not have spent years slogging it out in venues, but there’s been plenty of work. Says Joe, “We’ve learnt the hard way.”
The first song we heard from Alt-J was “Tessellate”. Where did it come from?
Growing up, loads of people don‘t know what tessellation is, or what tessellate means. But it was part of the curriculum as we grew up. Actually if you learn maths pretty early on, as you start to learn numbers you learn letters – and tessellation visually is quite a fun mathematical idea to learn as a child, ‘cause visually you can understand it better than it being explained. It’s shapes fitting together without any negative spaces, that sort of thing. The whole band learned that as we were learning the alphabet. It was imbedded into my growing up. It just happened that I was just thinking about it one day, and I thought it was a great analogy for sex (laughs). So many people were just like, “I don’t know what this means,” and I was all, “How could you not know?” For me that was like people saying, I’m struggling to learn the alphabet.”
The film clip by Alex Southam is unique, putting painter Raphael together with doo-rags.
That was a fantastic video. Alex had this old idea of a master’s painting with a contemporary twist, sorta a So-Solid-Crew-meets-LA-gangsta going on. There’s a name used for gang youth culture in England, they’re called rude boys. We were quite keen to have a music video for “Tessellate” where there were rude boys in Cambridge lido – which is a big, open air pool, where all the well to do, posh people of Cambridge go. So we had this idea of all the rude boys around the lido just swimming and smoking, being violent but very tongue-in-cheek. But then Alex had his idea, and we thought it was great – it was similar to what we wanted to do, we really liked it.
When you finished recording the song, did you have a sense you’d written a breakout track? Did it feel unique?
I think instinctively you know when you’ve written, for want of a better word, a hit. You do know because... I don’t know, if you’re excited when you play it and record it, and you keep listening to it over and over again. Often that’s a really good sign that you’re onto a winner. We never release songs that we don’t think are hits or that we love, but then there are those special songs where you think [amazed], “I’m onto something!”
What about “Breezeblocks”, what sparked that off?
“Breezeblocks” is a classic heartbreak song. It’s about wanting someone back so much you’re willing to resort to cannibalism. We fused Maurice Sendack’s children’s book Where The Wild Things Are as a sort of a prism to get that idea of loss, desiring someone so much you’re gonna eat them. I was in my bedroom in Leeds, doing my third year of Fine Arts at university. I was writing on my bed, and was, I think, looking at a packet of crisps that said, “May contain nuts” or something. I was like, “Hmm... May contain the urge to run away” – and that’s where I got the first line. By looking at food packaging.
Are Alt-J the type of band who enjoy a wild rumpus? You all seem very polite.
(Laughs). No. We’re anti rock’n’roll lifestyle. We don’t have early nights, but they’re reasonably early. I think the biggest rock’n’roll thing the band ever did was pee off a hotel balcony. And that wasn’t me – but it was my hotel room. I told them to all go use their own room, but they ignored me, they were desperate. But, I had a toilet... so it doesn’t make much sense.
Did that song come together quickly?It did come about quite fast. It was during the dark ages of our band, when Gwil [Sainsbury, guitar/bass] moved to Berkeley for a year to do Fine Arts as a year abroad. So we were left holding the fort. It was written relatively quickly. But it was a bit of a turning point for the band, especially for me as a writer. I realised this song was really strong – one of the first songs where I was (chuffed), “I’ve actually written something I’m impressed with.” And that was a really nice feeling, because before that I was always stuck: “It doesn’t sound good, what’s wrong?” It came about the same time as “Matilda”, in 2009.
“Fitzpleasure”, with the tribal bass beats, is quite different – arrangement-wise, it feels like it’s come from separate parts.
Basically how we work sometimes is that we collage all our ideas together. “Fitzpleasure” is the perfect example – the Frankenstein body of a song. It started in my room: I had the bassline on my guitar, notes on the bass string. Originally it was a song called “Porcupine”, which was a very small, light, singer/songwriter tune about a porcupine who pricks himself too much on his own spikes. I let it develop and it turned into “Fitzpleasure”.
There was a band, I forget now who, who had a song with the line, “In youth is pleasure”. (Starts chanting) “In youth is pleasure, in youth is pleasure, in youth is pleasure...” They say it over and over again, it’s a great song. But I thought the singer was saying, “In you fits pleasure”. I thought whoa, that’s clever – you have the shape that fits pleasure. But then I read the lyrics and went, “Right – fits pleasure is mine, I’m taking that.”
So I applied it to my porcupine song. Once I had that the juices started flowing. At the time I was reading Last Exit To Brooklyn – lots of violent, sexy, nasty stuff, that really knocked me for six. Then I wanted to write about Tralala, a character in the book. When we were in the studio I looked back at this monstrosity of a song and went, “This is dirty.” It was creating some really weird feelings within us, we were like, “What is this? Is it good?” It’s knackering to listen to, but then we got addicted to it – and we kept wanting to go back to get another hit. We had to go cold turkey on it.
As a band who include lots of big ideas – mathematics, Robert Capa (“Taro”), childrens’ books, Natalie Portman – how do you go about working out what references stay, and which go? The band’s sound is very concise.
It’s a good question – depends on the song. Sometimes you know just by the nature of the song. The way we write music is to build everything up, layer and layer and layer it, and then look at it, and take everything away. Often we only like using things once – for instance, if there’s a hook, we prefer to only use it one time, and then carve everything else away. And then once you’ve got a song to its bare bones, it’s got a really strong structure.
I often don’t change lines. If I think they can get better then I’ll change them, but if I like it from the start I work the song around the lyric. There are some new songs actually we’re working on where I’m singing too much, and the timing goes out. But fuck the timing – the timing isn’t as important. What you need to remember is that you can do anything you like. You shouldn’t be restricted by anything. If you’re saying too much in a bar, don’t worry about it – say what you want to say and don’t worry about whether or not it fits.
Would you say Alt-J is about exploring music, and its limitations – or lack of? Is that the ethos of the band?Yeah. It’s really exciting, because you know that now you’ve gotten used to the fact that everyone [in the band] is coming from a different angle. Gus [Unger-Hamilton, keys] grew up as a classically trained pianist singer – he’s a grade A pianist, grade seven on oboe. Gwil grew up in rural Cornwall using his younger brother’s guitar. His brother is five years younger, and taught him how to play when Gwil was 19, but he’s the glue that binds everyone together. And then Thom [Green, drums] comes from a heavy metal background, where he was in a grindcore band for 12 years called Foobar – just heavy music, playing in Harrogate and Leeds. That’s really exciting for me, ‘cause you just know that when you write something they’re going to put their own spin on it. That really motivates you in terms of going on an adventure.
But do you steer the ship?Yep. I think I do steer the ship: I write the basic songs and then I take it to the band, they write their parts. And then we work together at rewriting their parts, and we work at restructuring the song. So often I orchestrate things, but without them I wouldn’t be doing this. They’ve given me the confidence to think maybe I am good at writing songs. I couldn’t do it without them, and they couldn’t do this without me.
Looking back at 2012 and the success of An Awesome Wave, has there been a significant change in how the band works over the last 12 months?
Oh yeah, definitely. We were a band where we spent a lot of time working on songs. Getting the songs right, getting happy with them. We were very, very, very patient as a band. We weren’t eager to get anything out or to show people, ‘cause we didn’t want to look like Muppets. We wanted to show people something we were proud of. And because of that, we didn’t actually play that much live.
So when we got signed, we were playing gigs – people had heard all the tracks, ‘cause we had a great producer [Charlie Andrew], a good relationship with him, so we were pushing out god quality tracks. And people were coming to see us live, but we hadn’t reached that point yet. So that was a big learning process, and that’s been something we’ve really learnt over this year. We recorded the album, learnt how to play the album. We’ve learnt the hard way.
And now you won’t stop playing it for another year.(Laughs) Which psychologically does take its toll. What stops you from, you know, driving into a brick wall or jumping off a cliff is that you play to a crowd who might not have heard the songs before, and they refresh them for you. It’s a really cathartic process, actually, it’s really nice.
Alt-J will tour Australia in February.