Music Features

New for 2012: Alt-J

Cambridge-based Alt-J are hoping that 2012 is their year. After cultivating a fanbase through free Soundcloud downloads, they’re now starting to gain some serious press coverage and will be heading out on tour in the early part of the year. Also known by the moniker, △ (it’s the symbol you get when pressing Alt-J on a Mac), the band’s polyrhythmic yet soulful take on glitch-pop means their reputation is only going to grow in the coming months.

As 2011 drew to a close, Craig Stevens caught up with Alt-J’s Joe for a chat about their hopes and dreams for 2012.

Things seem to be going well for Alt-J at the moment. You recently played as part of BBC Radio 1's Festive Festival and then just a few days later, it was announced that you'd be touring the UK with Ghostpoet in February. It must be an incredibly exciting time for you.

It really is. We're big fans of Ghostpoet and we've always listened to Radio 1 and the BBC Radio stations in general, throughout our childhoods and teenage years. To be playing on the radio and to be playing in the future with Ghostpoet - it's pretty unbelievable.

Is your tour with Ghostpoet going to be your first national tour?

Yeah, our first national tour officially. We've done bits and bobs – driving in a stickered van around the country. But that was more just to play gigs in areas other than our hometown [Leeds]. It's certainly the first time we'll be playing alongside an established act, over a period of about two weeks or so.

Were you disappointed not to be featured on the BBC's Sound of 2012 list?

No, I wasn't surprised. I suppose it would have been nice to have been on there. All the acts on there are equally great. I think we made an unofficial list on another website. So at least we made one list, which was nice!

I can hear elements of a number of different bands in your music. Which artists would you say have inspired the band the most? Do you listen to certain artists when you're recording or writing?

We all have really different tastes in music. But we do find common ground on certain bands. Like we all agreed that we enjoyed Metronomy's last album, we've played that quite a lot. And also, Azealia Banks, that 212 song. We love that song. So we do have songs that we agree on collectively, but most of the time, we have a really eclectic taste as a group. Our drummer, Tom, for example, is a heavy metal drummer, so the music he'll listen to and relax to is pretty hardcore. But it's nice to delve into genres of music that the other members listened to growing up.

That mish-mash of genres really comes across in your music. Some of the beats in your songs are really rather complex, the kind of rhythms you might see in heavier music. But then the songs are still really melodic, so there's a definite crossover.

I grew up listening to things like James Taylor and stuff like that. And I was listening to James Taylor last night, actually, and there are a lot of links between the harmonies, the Americana sound and the kind of sounds that I feel like I bring to the band. And it was nice finally hearing a connection. And, like you said, Tom's beats are pretty full on. And it's nice to see the link between the areas of our music and the music we've all grown up with.

So when you're asked to describe the music that you create, how do you do that?

Well, we were once described by a journalist as Nick Drake meets gangsta rap. And I can kind of see that link. But normally, we just say we're folktronica.

Tessellate is such a beautiful song and it has links with the band name, both referencing triangles. Was it the song that inspired the band name, or vice versa, did the band name inspire the song?

I think it was just a happy coincidence, actually. When writing the song, I just thought it was a nice lyric - “Triangles are my favourite shape”. And also, we'd started using triangles in our imagery for the band. So when we came to change our band name – yeah, there might have been a small influence. But I think it was more of a coincidence.

You mentioned the change in names there. You used to be known as Films. What was the reason for the name change?

Well, there was another band in America called The Films. And we had a gig in Leeds at this festival, called Live at Leeds, and the promo stuff that they had going to advertise the event included a bio, where they had posted the bio from the band called The Films, instead of ours. And they'd used The Films' picture instead of ours. And it was at that point that we realised that there was an admin issue, but not only that – we might potentially get sued for breach of creative rights or copyrights. So we decided there and then that it might be a good idea to have a fresh start.

So when the band had its “fresh start”, did you carry forward music from the old band?

Yeah, we did. A lot of the songs available online are songs that we wrote as Films. But then equally, there are some that have only been written in the past couple of months.

Have you got a bank of songs waiting to be unleashed?

I would say we have a nice amount of songs which haven't been heard yet, yeah.

Well, the only music released by Alt-J to date is the free downloads that have been available on Soundcloud. What are your plans for releases in the future? Is there an EP on the way and will we see an album in the next twelve months?

We're going into the recording studio in January, and we're planning to record as much as we can. So we've got loads of new tracks to record and we're thinking that if it goes well, that will be stuff we're recording for an album. We're releasing a double A-side single at some point in the New Year which includes a track which is on Soundcloud and a track which hasn't been heard before. And it's one that we're all really excited about. And I think if things go well, our recording will be for the album, which hopefully will come out at some point this year.

Who is that does most of the writing? Do you do it as a collective or individually?

I write the song in terms of the lyrics, the melody, the notation. And I take it to the group, and they write their parts. And from there, we work on the structure of the song together. And we take things from there. That's how we've done it to date anyway.

You haven’t made any music videos yet but given that your art and your image is important to you as a band, can we expect to see some suitably artistic music videos in due course; have you got some plans already?

We do have plans, yeah. We're firm believers in the importance of image against music. They're two things that really marry well; the aesthetic and what you can hear. And for me, the music video is the Holy Grail. And we did Fine Art, so we're really keen to start working on videos now for the songs.

And I assume that because of your previous band name, films are important to you.

I grew up watching films, it was the only thing I really did. It was always there, either as a distraction from coursework or as a reward for finishing coursework. I always watched films and they had a huge influence on me as a person, and on the music.

What was your favourite album of 2011, and who are you tipping for the top in 2012?

It's got to be Let England Shake by PJ Harvey. It's a blindingly obvious one, but for good reason. I just thought it was fantastic. It had already turned into a classic by the second time I listened to it. I think it had such an amazing power to it. And in terms of people for the future, there's a grime artist called Lady Leshurr. She's a Birmingham-based MC. She's got this song called Lego. And just from listening to that song alone, I can't wait to hear more from her. She's got such great rhythm, speed, really interesting lyrics. And the production's simple but really nice.

Find out more about Alt-J on their Soundcloud page.