Worshipping at the Alt-ar

Hettie Burn interviews Mercury Prize winners Alt-J

Arguably the most successful new British band of the year, there’s something wonderfully organic about Alt-J. The home-grown and honest undercurrent of their music is mirrored in the band’s public image, despite their recent rapid rise to Mercury-Prize-winning success. Formed during their studies at Leeds University in 2007, Alt-J now reside in Cambridge and brought out their critically acclaimed debut album An Awesome Wave in May. I spoke to lead singer Joe Newman while the band were in Amsterdam, part-way through a string of tour dates that doesn’t look set to end any time soon.

Luckily, Alt-J seem to have taken the recent hype and continuous touring right into their stride. Nevertheless, an innocent enquiry into their current whereabouts produces slightly disconcerting results; the phone crackles as Joe turns to ask Gus (keyboards) what the venue is actually called to no avail. However, perhaps the fact that they are playing a gig every night in three different countries during the following week alone forms some explanation for the confusion (the venue was called Melkweg). Whether their international audiences are already aware of Alt-J’s music doesn’t seem to bother Joe, who assures me “when we play [the set] to new people it has a psychological effect on us because it kind of makes the tracks fresh again for an audience that haven’t heard us live”.

Indeed, the experience of their audience seems to be more important to Alt-J than the positive criticism with which they have been showered since the release of their album. Joe finds their fan base “fascinating” because “it takes people coming up to us and saying things like ‘you’re really good’ and filling up venues for us to know how well we’re doing”. This assurance of popularity is especially rewarding as, for a band that can take years to perfect one song, criticism is ingrained; “we criticise ourselves to such a high level when we write music that once we finish the track, every possible angle had been covered by us as a band so we like what we’ve achieved.” There is unquestionably a desire for perfection evident in all that the band produces.

Alt-J are certainly primarily concerned with the presentation of their album – whether recorded or live – as a whole. “We’re big fans of ‘the album’; of the object and of the history”, Joe explains. “We wanted to write a really good album and put it all together nicely and package it so it’s a really lovely object.” As seems inevitable in a band made up of three former Fine Art students and one English Literature, the lyrics and graphics associated with An Awesome Wave are intricate. Joe’s lyrics, he explains, are often derived from a story or other people’s ideas that inspire him. He concentrates his work on “getting every line right so that [the concept] can stand alone in itself.”

The lyrics of Alt-J’s music, despite their beautiful composition, rarely seem to hold any precedence over the song as a whole. Joe’s voice, unusual in its timbre, becomes layered in the texture of the sound just as the other instruments. Joe explains his unusual vocal style as “the way that feels most comfortable”, originating from his discovery at a young age that “just singing in front of people made me feel quite comfortable so I could explore my voice”. This sense of comfort is important to the band dynamic as a whole; “we’re really lucky that we found each other. We’ve got a good chemistry and we all know each other’s strong points so we can all allow each other to take centre stage for a while. There are really strong moments in everyone’s playing. In most tracks, everyone has the limelight.”

Naturally, the excitement of winning the Mercury Prize this October has put some extra pressure on the band, both in terms of commitments and a second album. Joe suggests that the award has not affected the group as people but has changed them as a band because of the increased attention. Nevertheless, the success of this debut album is undeniable and surely adds a certain apprehension to future attempts to consistently improve. After all, An Awesome Wave has already achieved Joe’s childhood dream of “someone, somewhere, listening to your music as they were travelling somewhere”. However, Joe remains focused on the positive side of their success, suggesting that winning the prize gives the band “time to work on a few more things for the second album”, admitting that “whether we can pull off a second album” is “what everyone’s waiting to see”.

Joe sounds particularly positive when discussing the elusive ‘second album’. He explains that “we’ve been writing songs for a while now and when we were writing the first album we had songs for the second”. At the beginning, they didn’t think “oh these songs would work for the second album” rather “these songs are great, they’re just not ready for the first album”. When I ask if we should expect Alt-J’s sound to have evolved between these albums, Joe seems excited by the prospect of any unanticipated developments. He explains that they have songs yet “don’t know where they’re going to go”. He is “really excited” to “sit down with the guys and play them a song and just see their response or reaction to that song”, describing the process as “an exciting venture” and all about “spontaneity and being surprised”. He emphasises that these developments are not achieved consciously but come about as a result of a group with such mixed musical experiences who are “on the same wave-length”.

Ultimately, things look set to only get better for Alt-J. The success that they’ve gathered through the first album has been phenomenal, extending their tour until at least May and inspiring them to think about the second album. As Joe puts it, “it’s exciting to think that we might be in this life a little bit longer”.