Scalene the heights: the projection of Alt-J
'Rock and roll for us is a series of Spinal Tap moments'
Chris Swindells on 08 December 2011
Clutching four homemade compact discs, each lovingly illustrated in felt tip, Alt-J seem visibly unsure
about what they’ve just volunteered for. “It’s our first DJ set tonight,” Gus tells me, “No
Flipping the paper sleeves over, you notice a word-processed track listing, Radiohead and SBTRKT both featuring, and feel some relief for the four men stood, slightly lost, in Hoxton Bar & Grill. This might just be a crowd open to hear the charms of their record collection.
“Our producer is in The Laurel Collective so we’re just doing him a favour,” Gus explains. In his specs and quilted jacket, he stands slightly above the other three, and as an outfit you can at once notice how unassimilated and thrown together Alt-J look.
Meeting at Leeds University three years ago there’s no one accent or joint ideal to cling to. From all corners of the country, Alt-J readily admit they formed with no game plan or conscious strategy. “We were just hanging out, playing in each others bedrooms originally, with no intention of playing live,“ Gus says. Even in the early days they shunned, or were shunned, by the local Leeds scenes. “We never really thought there was many bands we were friends with,” Guitarist Gwilym Sainsbury reveals, as the four debate the rights and wrongs of such scene associations.
The formative years were played out with some confusion, not on their part they add though. An early name change from FILMS came after a number of embarrassing mix ups, culminating in their wrongful billing at Live at Leeds earlier this year. “They got us completely mixed up with the band The Films, they put them, a picture of them and their bio instead of us,” remembers drummer Thom Green as Gus nods along and adds with a wry smile: “It trebled our fee.”
“When you’ve lived with the name and the music, at first you think ‘how the fuck did you make that mistake?’” Frontman Joe Newman lambasts, pointing out that any changes have all been gentle and easy for their quarter, minor teething problems in the grand scheme of life, the original line-up have always stayed together unchanged.
“There is the whole issue of us and our name now and people being like ‘what the fuck is it?’” ‘Gwil’ admits. Alt-J, or the delta triangle for any practising Mac user, was an accidental title, and one fluked upon as it’s spurred an initial enigma with the band.
“It’s quite funny, forums of windows users bitching about it and Mac people just pressing the triangle again and again and again with big exclamation marks being like ‘fuck you, I can do it, you can’t!’” Gwil says, adding: “It’s just a funny thing.”
The band certainly don’t subscribe to the Mac user stereotype, for a start half of them use Windows as Gwil is quick to explain. “That’s kind of a failure of the name in a way because we were meant to be the people in the adverts, you know ‘I’m a Mac’, which is kind of tragic.”
It wouldn’t be a slight to say Alt-J aren’t desperate to make friends with the cool Mac kids. Trackpad movements and genius bars are all well and good but Alt-J just want to be engrossed in the musical mechanics of building, creating anew. Their sound is one constantly adapting, a vibe of sparse rhythms punctuated with dry bluesy vocals and soft, sparing electric guitar interwoven. After years of demo-ing and crafting their hallmark sonics the four members only started to take the concept of becoming professional seriously in spring of this year.
“It’s almost like it’s a computer game, and there’s different level ups and when you get so much experience you get a level up. I think the biggest level up we had was playing that Maida Vale session.” Guy analogises.
You can’t say the lads haven’t done their maths homework though. Triangles, from logo to lyrics, crop up all over their artwork. “I think it was an epiphany really,” Joe says. “Of all the shapes triangles were on top of my agenda.”
“I think Geodesic structures based on triangles are based on the carbon atom, and that’s what we’re all made of!” Gwil adds neatly, with a tone of enlightened wisdom, but then as he says later, of everything else that influences the band: “It’s probably just a way to get laid.”
Profound statements from a band who thus far have shied away from the limelight, or least the flashlight of fame. In promo photographs an unwritten rule of not revealing their faces has formed. “It was just a rejection of the classic band photograph, standing against a wall looking rather average,” Gus explains, “We’re not Nazis about it."
Gwil chips in, “We’ve got this Clash photo-shoot tomorrow and it’s like ‘do I really want my face to be in a magazine?’ I’ve got a couple of spots down here that have been brewing, I don’t really want the stress of showing my fucking face.”
If spots are a worry, they’re not visible in the East London boozer and the four guys share equal turns in telling Virtual Festivals just what they have in hopes for the year ahead, none involving Clearasil. “I’ve never been to any festivals as a punter, and only been to two as a musician,” Joe tells us. “I don’t really know much about music festivals and I’d love to go to all of them.”
Alongside all of this the plans for any debut LP are all very loose in the mind, “At the moment we’re just thinking about recording, not recording for an album.” Joe says. The glitz and glam, if it’s out there, has yet to reveal itself to Alt-J, a band held up in a two-bed place in Cambridge for the last five months. “I think rock n roll for us is a series of Spinal Tap moments,” Gwil concludes, before they wander over to the handful of spectators in the venue, awaiting their Pete Tong moment, “When do we go on?” Gus asks their PR, "No idea."
Check out Alt-J's One To Watch page with festival dates, free downloads and more.