Installed by bookies as 4-6 favourites to win the Mercury Prize weeks before the shortlist is even announced, Alt-J are rising at a rate beyond their control. At a time when the charts seem allergic to guitars, Radio 1 has embraced them on its A-list — there haven’t been many bands this hot since Arctic Monkeys. Now they’re trying to catch up. “I didn’t know it was possible to be this busy,” says bassist Gwil Sainsbury.
Gathering in a Bloomsbury restaurant to discuss their terrifyingly premature crowning as this year’s Mercury winners, the quartet (aged between 23 and 26) tell me about a recent appearance at a small Spanish music festival. At Sinsal San Simón near the Portuguese border, the acts are not named but hinted at by one-word clues. Alt-J’s word was “hype”.
“It’s pretty scary. That was almost not a nice thing to do because now everyone’s looking at us and we haven’t even got a nomination yet,” says Sainsbury.
“I don’t think it helps anyone,” adds singer and guitarist Joe Newman. “It puts a lot of pressure on us. Now if we don’t get a nomination it’ll be absolutely crushing.”
They shouldn’t have too much to worry about. Their album, An Awesome Wave, is exactly the kind of clever, arty indie pop that has judges and critics rolling over with paws in the air. They may currently have that backlash-tempting new-band buzz but they look like they’re shaping up for a long, Radiohead-style career. There’s huge potential in their sound.
Their decision to move to Cambridge together after graduating from Leeds University in 2010 (“We wanted somewhere near London but not London — it’s too expensive and too distracting”) is an indication of the way they’ve deliberately set themselves apart from the rest of the music scene. There’s no need to be overly cool, no strained claiming of dubstep influences. Being out on a limb suits them.
For that’s where their music hovers, airily folky on Matilda, interweaving voices and intricate beats on Breezeblocks, riding a monstrous bass riff on Fitzpleasure. Styles fidget and shift, with Newman’s odd voice floating above it all — sometimes a croak, sometimes a choirboy. They’re weird but seem to think they could have been a lot weirder. I ask if they think have a proper pop song in them and they declare, outraged: “They’re all pop songs!”
“I was worried that our oldest fans would think it was too poppy,” says Unger-Hamilton. “I think people were expecting something more cerebral, experimental, that would blow minds.” Instead there are the vivid chimes of Dissolve Me and the near-bhangra groove of Taro.
“It’s accessible but also strange and uncategorisable,” explains Newman. “We’ve got to a point where people are sick of the standard indie structures,” chips in Sainsbury. The band’s quirkier side means there’s far more to their songs than a hummable chorus. You’ll notice new things as you keep coming back, and might end up with a favourite segment rather than a favourite song. It could brighten up your morning or creep up on you late at night.
It all might sound intimidatingly cool but the band have work to do in that area. Put aside the hipster attire (floral shoes, test card jumpers, nerd specs and so on) and the smarty pants name (it’s actually △, the Delta symbol — pressing “Alt-J” is how you make it on a Mac keyboard) and they’re four nice middle-class fellows not long out of university with three Fine Art degrees and one in English Lit. Sainsbury got a First.
Look a bit closer at Newman and he could be the younger brother of children’s TV superstar Mr Tumble. Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton concludes that he must be right about a particular issue because he heard a discussion about it on Woman’s Hour. He relates a story about telling a stranger in a bar that he was an accountant to avoid the “I’m in a band” conversation — by no means an unconvincing lie. Only Thom Green offers a smattering of danger — he’s been drumming in metal bands since he was 12.
While bands used to develop on the dole while mooching around their home towns, Alt-J’s is a more typical modern tale of like minds meeting at degree level. “University is an amazing period for writing music,” says Newman. “You’re being subsidised by student loans and your parents, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and you’re around new people in a new city.”
There’s a steeliness to the singer and chief songwriter that suggests greater ambition than just being this year’s hottest new arrival. “I came to university primarily to start a band, to meet people who played music.
I was writing songs at home in Southampton but my friends just wanted to jam and get pissed. At Leeds I met Gwil, who had the same work ethic.”
At their first ever gig, in Newman and Sainsbury’s Leeds front room, they packed people in to the extent that someone fainted. “I’ve never been so nervous,” says Sainsbury. These twentysomethings are now about to embark on a long North American tour before they return to the UK for yet more gigs at the end of the year.
It’s not quite the rock ’n’ roll life. Apart from one incident of public urination in a Los Angeles hotel (“It came up on my room service bill when we left,” says Unger-Hamilton. “Extra cleaning charge: urinating on balcony.”) they’re hard workers.
“I don’t want to shatter people’s illusions about what it’s like being in a band,” the keyboard player continues. “You travel a lot, get really anal about whether hotels have wi-fi and become quite a boring person.” Thankfully the music is anything but. This quartet have made an album that people will still be talking about long after awards season is over.
Alt-J plays the Electric Ballroom, NW1 (020 7485 9006, electric ballroom.co.uk) on Nov 5 and O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk) Jan 18-19, 2013; An Awesome Wave is out now on Infectious.