UK quartet Alt-J doesn't want us to define them. In fact, at first it seemed as if they didn't want us to find them or figure them out, thanks to what seemed an unsearchable band name—a triangle or delta sign, ∆, pronounced alt-j (after the keyboard shortcut which creates a triangle on a Mac)—along with a curious aversion to the camera and an unself-conscious desire to color outside the lines of genre, all of which shaded them mysterious and perhaps a tad pretentious. Despite the building buzz surrounding their title and genre name games (which they reluctantly once tagged "trip-folk"), the band has quickly risen above the hype as a genuine bands to watch in 2012. The former fine art students met and formed the band (originally named FILMS until a case of mistaken identity with US band The Films) at Leeds University in 2007 and have since succeeded in earning comparisons to Radiohead (a noted influence), nabbing tour time with Ghostpoet and Wild Beasts, and basking in glowing reviews for their debut album, An Awesome Wave.
Their debut intricately entangles multiple musical genres—folk verses, trip-hop atmosphere, pop catchiness, indie rock quirk, rock rattling bass, hip-hop beats, electronic heavy synth riffs—and interweaves it with heartbreakingly intimate lyrics, peppered with film and literary references including shout-outs to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and Luc Besson's Léon. The tale is told with an unexpected urgent sensuality, poetic vulnerability, and an accessible eccentricity that ultimately proves to be the fruitful listening experience music critics have so fervently promised. The band is currently touring the UK and will be playing the festival circuit this summer.
We talked to frontman Joe Newman, as his train chugged along through England, about sinister love song "Breezeblocks," having a crush on Baby Spice, and whether or not their interest in triangles could result in an unwanted Illuminati conspiracy theory (à la Jay-Z's Roc Nation triangle symbol).
HOMETOWN: Cambridge, UK
ON THE POSITIVE FEEDBACK OF AN AWESOME WAVE: We can't get over it. It's been an amazing thing for people to like your album—not only fans, but experts to say really nice things—that's just another level. We're amazed but it's brilliant.
SONGWRITING PROCESS: Part of the reason [the album] is accessible is because we don't try to go out of the box or be innovative. We just try to play music we like to hear and we're kind of absentmindedly sounding like no other band at the moment. It's not something we're aware of, just something we're told. We work very hard, and in some cases we spend years on songs trying to get it right—refining it, picking things out and changing things around. I think because we were all friends before we were musicians, we naturally understand one another. We're on the same wavelength which is why we end up sounding okay.
NO LABELS: Our mission is not to create a new genre. We're not interested in trying to define ourselves. We don't like people trying to figure out what our music sounds like, nor do we feel like we do that for them. We're just happy writing music, and now we're lucky enough to do that hobby professionally. Apparently, people thought that we coined the term "folk step," but none of us said anything about "folk step." We're not into branding what we do.
CURRENT SINGLE "BREEZEBLOCKS": The song is about liking someone who you want so much that you want to hurt yourself and them, as well. We related that idea to Where the Wild Things Are, which we all grew up reading, where in the end the beasts say "Oh, please don't go! We'll eat you whole! We love you so!," that they would threaten cannibalism to have that person—it's a powerful image. Our video for this track has a really different message, and yet it worked really well with the song. It's quite a weird one; people aren't sure what's going on. We liked that you might have to go back and watch it a second time to figure out what is happening.
FINDING HIS VOICE: My dad is a singer, and I always grew up listening to him. I was probably mimicking my dad's voice, because it's the only thing I had to go on, but then I started doing it more and more on my own. There was no time that I can remember where it was like "Okay, this is my voice;" it was more trial and error for a long, long period of time. When I got to university, I decided I should engage in the uni experience, meet people and do things I wouldn't ordinarily do, so I started singing in front of people. I don't put it on in any way—what you hear is just how I like to sing, that's my comfort zone. There's no pretense. It just feels good.
EARLY MUSICAL INFATUATION: I could not get enough of the Spice Girls. Every time we went on holiday to Cornwall, from the ages eight to ten, my Spice Girls tape would just be on repeat. Seriously, it's probably in my top five albums of all time, just because it's so, so good. [laughs] Emma Bunton [Baby Spice] was my favorite. I don't think I've ever had as big a crush as I had on her. I wasn't a boy who had posters in his room, but I had a poster of her. I think she's still the love of my life. [laughs] Just for the record, I suppose my crush has died out. I suppose I could live without Emma Bunton...
ON ∆S AND BAND NAMES: We're not particularly obsessed with the shape. There's our song "Tessellate" where there is a line, "Triangles are my favorite shape"—it was a suitable line to say in the context of the song. The song was about tessellations and triangles fit really well together. We only really chose Alt-J because it was a name we could all agree on. We had to change our name because we were originally called FILMS but there is an American band named The Films. We spent a month and half trying to figure out what this new name should be and we were really getting desperate to decide, and we didn't have to compromise on this one, we all liked it.
JAY-Z AND THE ILLUMINATI CONSPIRACY THEORY: IS THE USE OF A ∆ TOO RISKY?: Oh yeah, there is a definitely a strong Illuminati connection [referring to their own triangle preference]. All of us are pretty interested in the Illuminati and tearing it down from the inside; it's why we're called Alt-J, really. [laughs] We're in cahoots with Jay-Z. He's sitting next to me on the train. [laughs]
THE IDEAL SCENARIO TO EXPERIENCE ALT-J'S MUSIC: There is a scenario that I always thought I would love to listen to any track of my choice—originally it wasn't an Alt-J song, it was DJ Shadow's "Blood on the Motorway," but I'll replace it with an Alt-J song, like, "Fitzpleasure." You go to the top of a skyscraper and you have headphones taped onto your ears so that they don't fall out... when you jump off the skyscraper. As you jump a comet hits—say we're in New York—hits New York, Deep Impact-style, and a wall of rubble like a tidal wave ten times bigger than the skyscraper you're falling from, comes toward you as you're falling to your death and it captures you before you hit the ground. That would be good.
WHAT'S NEXT: We're touring and playing festivals. We actually are coming to America at the end of the summer. I don't know if it's official, but we're definitely coming to America. Definitely New York. I should stop saying ‘definitely' because I don't know for sure. [laughs] We're looking forward to just playing a lot. We haven't played that many festivals. We just want to play in the sun.
ALT-J'S DEBUT ALBUM AN AWESOME WAVE IS OUT NOW ON INFECTIOUS MUSIC.