Alt-J: TAS In Session
Alt-J photo courtesy of the artist
Clever move on the part of Alt-J to name its debut album An Awesome Wave; the title also neatly sums up the young, Leeds-born band's amazing trajectory for the year.
On top of praise from critics and sold-out gigs, last week the quartet was named one of this year's nominees for the Mercury Prize, the most prestigious music award for UK and Ireland musicians. An Awesome Wave has been out in the UK since May, but it will finally, at long last, be released in the States tomorrow, September 18, on Canvasback.
Alt-J play Allston, Massachusetts tonight and continue touring North America until October 14 when they'll wrap things up at Austin City Limits Festival. Dates in Australia, the UK and Europe follow; it seems unlikely Alt-J will be home much until later in 2013.
Not long ago, Joe Newman, Gwil Sainsbury, Thom Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton made their way to Studio A for a live session and interview in which they chatted about nerves, their process and the Leeds music scene. The Alternate Side will broadcast the session this Friday, September 21, on TAS on WNYE at 11 a.m. EDT, also streaming on the TAS site.
Check out interview highlights and performances of songs like "Tessellate" and "Fitzpleasure" below and read Alt-J's tour diary for The Alternate Side too.
Russ Borris: We're at a time now where it’s really hard to come up with something that feels really fresh and different. When it comes to music, everything comes from someplace. But it does feel that there are a lot of unique sounds on [An Awesome Wave]. Was this challenging for you guys as a group?
Gwil Sainsbury: We sort of make music that we want to listen to as a group and that pleases all of us. If we’re making a track, usually Joe’s written most of it himself and then we add our parts, mix it up, maybe put it with another track. It’s kind of more intuitive, cut and past, collage based than anything else, I think.
Joe Newman: I think we were friends first before we were musicians, so we’ve got this bond that we kind of developed before we were playing music together. We’ve translated that connection and the fact that we were on the same wavelength through our instruments. I think that’s a really good grounding for us, a starting point. That we were friends who played together in a bedroom. The fact that you can’t categorize us is to do, maybe, with the fact that we’re just mates. I dunno.
Russ: That has to make it easy when one guy brings something to the table and you can be a little more honest and say that’s not going to work.
Gwil: We met at university where you’re taught to think quite critically and so when you’re together, making music, it’s easy if someone is doing something you don’t like, for you to be like “I don’t really like that.” And if you have that process continuously, you have some sort of compromise between the four of you with quite different musical taste that produces whatever our sound is. So maybe that’s why people think it’s this uncategorizable [thing].
Russ: The first song I heard on this was “Fitzpleasure” and I got a couple of minutes into the song … and there were about six different songs in that. So many changes and things going on. It kind of floored me. How did that one start?
Gus: It was a song we had floating around for a really long time. This bass hook going on. We knew we really liked it and we didn’t know what to do with it and we worked on it, shelved it for a few months, then we got some lyrics into it. I think that probably helped develop the song. From there.
Gwil: It was still very schizophrenic before we took it into the studio. I didn’t even know what it was. Joe: It was all over the place and I think we weren’t satisfied because it didn’t have a conventional structure to it, so we thought, because it didn’t have that kind of textbook narrative, it was not very good. Or I was like, “Is it any good?” But you kind of get addicted to it; it’s got this really dirty quality. It’s not how songs are meant to be put together really. It’s got this really weird vibe which we kept coming back to. We kept collaging all of these ideas together.
Russ: I like the sequencing of the record because you have a few interludes that really accent the song. Joe, when you’re writing, we were talking before about how everyone brings the songs together. When the songs come together in your head lyrically, do you have any melodies worked out?
Joe: Every song is really different. Sometimes when I come up with the lyrics, yeah, it has a melody to it because it’s quite rhythmic. I really take advantage of the syllables of words. Immediately, a melody comes to mind. Sometimes that happens. Other times I have a melody that I really like and I find a word or a sentence to fit that melody. The best thing to do when you’re writing is to be patient. Log everything when you have a creative moment.
Russ: Do the other guys come in and nurse you through if you’re struggling with lyrics? Do you bring it to the other guys?
Joe: Normally, I come with the lyrics. It’s with music actually; if I’m playing something on the guitar, that’s when people are more critical, in a good way. With my lyrics, it’s got quite a good success rate within the ban.
Gwil: There was like one lyric on the album that we took out.
Joe: Oh, yeah. That one.
Gwil: Your success rate is like 99 percent.
Gus: Was it “The Midas Touch?”
Joe: Yeah. I didn’t realize that Razorlight had done a song where they talk about the Midas touch.
Russ: So you voted out the Midas touch?
Joe: It’s kind of a cliche. I thought it was me being clever … but no.
Russ: You guys got together at Leeds University. Did you plan on forming a band?
Joe: It was a mixture of both. One of the main reasons I went to university was to meet musicians and people who wanted to be in a band. I had some songs I’d been writing for years and years and I didn’t want to play to anyone. I thought that going to university might be a good opportunity to get [myself] out there and meet people. Everyone says that university is exciting so I thought that would give me a real kick out of the comfort zone, singing in front of them and stuff. I was going to university to find a band, really. I met Gwil and pretty straightaway we hit it off, but we didn’t really want to be in a band, did we?
Gwil: No, we were interested in just garage band recordings. And then putting them on Myspace. We were quite into that.
Joe: We were. That’s all I wanted. I was cooked after that. Happy.
Gwil: We weren’t interested in being a live band or anything like that. It was just a side project that we were doing.
Gus: It was only when Thom brough on his impressive skills that we started playing live.
Gwil: To do anything in public.
Joe: That’s why we play live; so people can experience Thom’s [drumming]. As we developed we realized that we should play live. We’d been writing these songs and we really liked what we were writing and we wanted our friends to see it and hear it. We then staged a gig that was in our front room in 2008. It was one of the best gigs we ever played because it was the first gig. We were really nervous and it was horrible in a weird way because we’d never played to crowd.
Gwil: It was exactly like, in “8 Mile” when [Eminem] goes to toilet and he’s sick. Exactly like that. I was so scared.
Gus: We’ve never been that nervous before a gig. Ever.
Joe: I think what was amazing is that people were really surprised. They were saying that it was the first university band that they’d heard — well, not first — but a style of sound that they hadn’t heard before from a university band. They were really complimentary.
Gus: I think people were pleasantly surprised to come to the gig and enjoy it and support us rather than go, “Good one, mate, that’s cool.”
Russ: What’s the local scene like?
Gwil: We all met in Leeds and it’s quite well known.
Gus: Right now it’s hardcore. Bands like Pulled Apart By Horses and Chickenhawk. Leeds hardcore bans. So we didn’t fit in that well, that scene.
Joe: We kept to ourselves and just focused on writing music that we liked to hear. That was our main concern. Not worrying about what other people were doing. Apart from Thom, who has been in bands all his life, the rest of us aren’t used to that band lifestyle of meeting and greeting everyone, getting on the scene. We were just focused on the music.
Russ: You did a tour blog for us, The Alternate Side, and you were talking about some of the shows you’d done in Spain or Japan. It’s interesting to read and see how you’re going to these countries you hadn’t necessarily been to before and people know you. Which has to be an interesting experience.
Gwil: It’s completely bizarre. Turning up in a country where you have no idea if your record’s even been released there, somewhere like Portugal, and you find out that you’ve got quite a few fans there and they know the words to all the songs. It’s amazing. Same in Japan. There’s nothing that can prepare you for that. It’s completely surreal. [In New York] every single show has been mad. The crowd has been so good. Joe: We were in Chicago, a city that none of us have ever been to, and just the support from people we don’t know … people having their eyes shut when they listen to the music. Saying lovely things after the gig. Singing the lyrics. We couldn’t believe it. Fantastic and long may it continue because we’re just buzzing. We’re still on a high and can’t wait to come back to America.
Russ: Are these songs still evolving?
Joe: I think we’re focused on making our live performances sound like the album. I think we’re close to that. Once we’ve hit that stage, I think then we’ll think about developing the songs for a live arena.
Gus: It’s sometimes tempting. You might come up with a little thing you want to put in and you probably have to resist the urge, normally, I’d say because you have to respect the song as it is up to a point. You have to go, “It’s finished, the album’s out, people like the album the way it is.”
Gwil: Someone gave us the biggest compliment in Brooklyn, [saying], that it was amazing to hear a band play live exactly as they did on the record. I really don’t think we’ve achieved that yet.
Gus: We don’t use any laptops or sequencers or anything like that.
Gwil: The only thing we have which is a click, a metronome, that keeps us on it.
Joe: Thom and I do improvise a bit; I don’t improvise with my guitar because I’d be too scared I’d mess everything up and in tears, so I sometimes sing and do little flourishes.
Gwil: Little Mariah Carey bits.
Joe: Yeah, little Mariah Carey bits. Apparently she has a voice that can open garage doors. It’s the same signal frequency.
Gwil: As a beeper that opens a garage door?
Joe: That’s what I was told. This is something that someone has told me! A random, blurry-faced guy from my past!