When Alt-J announced their first ever trip to play down under in October 2012, demand was always going to be huge. Tickets sold out within hours, and I missed out. Desolate, and deeming myself to be above licking wrists in the back alley for a dodgy stamp entry, I decided to retire to bed early that night and forget about it… there would be another time. But then, as if by magic, I got a call at 9.32pm to say a free ticket had been located, and that I had better hurry.
Twenty minutes later I was sipping on a cider and listening to the layered tracks of the rising four-piece band whose idiosyncratic mix of dubstep, folk and indie have caught the attention of countless critics and music lovers across the globe. Their record, An Awesome Wave, was dubbed as the debut album of the European summer, and is already turning heads on the Aussie scene. They played an absorbing and intimate set, but they’re not going to be playing at venues like this for much longer.
They are Alt-J, a UK quartet that is pushing the limits of alternative rock. A litany of labels have been coined to describe their experimental sound – folk-step, art rock, jump-folk and trip-folk – however, in refusing to submit to the rigours of any one genre, Alt-J may have created one that is uniquely their own.
Their debut record pitched them as the favourite to win the Barclaycard Mercury Prize, an award that is famous for selecting underdogs for nominees – and win they did, in November 2012. It's quite a feat, since the band – which formed at Leeds University in 2007, when friends Gus Unger-Hamilton (Keyboard), Gwill Sainsbury (guitar), Thom Green (drums), and Joe Newman (vocals) began recording in their dorm rooms using Garageband – had been largely unrecognised until recently, with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton telling Triple J: “This time last year we were unsigned, living on the dole in Cambridge.”
The group has remained a testament to the power of word-of-mouth over record company marketing. Considered more of a DIY band, they don’t have a structural approach to writing music, and the organic approach usually leaves them unaware of where their choruses are in a song, having to rely on their producer to tell them. Frontman Joe Newman told the Guardian: “We're more like artists, he's more like a designer. We make the print and then he puts in on a scarf and sells it in the V&A gift shop."
If you needed evidence that these humble fellas were still coming to terms with the tidal wave of success battering them around of late, you just had to look at the musicans’ grins of disbelief at the reaction of the OAF audience – one fan noted, “It’s so refreshing to see a band genuinely humbled and appreciative of their crowd."
The tunes, for those not in the know, are highly allusary – the guys were lit and fine arts students after all.
‘Fitzpleasure’, a bass-heavy song of primal drum beats, was influenced by the 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. And the record is peppered with countless other allusions, like the tribute to Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are in ‘Breezeblocks’ (“Please don’t go/I’ll eat you whole/I love you so”), or the heart-breakingly delicate ‘Matilda’, dedicated to the main character in the French film by Luc Besson, Léon: The Professional.
‘Taro’, the final track of the album and the encore of the set, features the tragic love affair between 20th-century war photographers Robert Capa (who stepped on a mine in Indo-China) and Gerda Taro (who was run over by a tank during the Spanish civil war.). Featuring a sitar, this beautiful acoustic ballad was delivered to electrified silence at the OAF. Newman’s vocals jumped from hushed falsetto yelps to bassy chants throughout the set, incomparable to anything I’ve heard in a long time. Needless to say, the response was good.
Now that they've won the Mercury, Alt-J can kiss their obscure public persona goodbye.