So accomplished a debut is Δ (Alt-J)’s long-player An Awesome Wave that it deserves the breathless, positive superlatives heaped upon it by those critics who are actually music fans.
It’s a nerdy little thing, too. Done by four lads who met at uni in Leeds, UK, the album is rammed with more literary references than you can shake a library at…and even the kids’ section: the hypnotic refrain from “Breezeblocks” (“Please don’t go/I’ll eat you whole/I love you so”) is an ode to Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. There’s a song about war photographers. And one’s got a title that refers to the word for repeating geometric patterns (à la MC Escher). The band name’s a triangle.
So how the hell to describe an album that’s genreless? Errrrr…. *Takes deep breath, then stabs wildly in the dark*
It’s not purely nu-folk, or Wild Beasts (the band with which they’re always being compared) though there are harmonies, and some strange chant-like ones, too. Singer Joe Newman has a voice that makes the so-far-one-entry-long “Misheard Alt-J Lyrics” Tumblr page relevant (the lyric book inside the album will come in handy, I promise). Eg, it’s hard to figure out whether Newman’s referring to 70s hippie Donovan or poet Johnny Flynn (it’s the latter). He mumbles, sometimes, but beautifully.
Musically? Layered synths and piano from Gus Unger-Hamilton and Foals-like electric guitar or elegant acoustic by Gwil Sainsbury. There’s sitar and tabla on “Taro”, xylophone all over “MS”, “Matilda” is simple, steady and pretty (and nods at the excellent French film Léon) and “Tessellate” (a song about sex, basically) is skittish and quirky.
“Fitzpleasure” contains four songs in one – it starts with trippy monk chants, then comes Newman’s nasally gospel, followed by a filthy grinding drop, then the “tra-la-la-la-la” chants again. Then it all goes a bit Urban Hymns-era Verve. Then comes the drop again, and a delicious muddled classic rock guitar riff.
So there, that’s Alt-J. Confused? Yeah, you should be. These are songs and a sound that, when stitched together, you’ve not heard before.
An Awesome Wave isn’t released in North America until September 18 (on label Canvasback), but it’s now out in the UK and comes in a rather quite lovely fold-out, of-course-they-met-in-art-school “origami” sleeve, and contains much wonderful. It’s keenly produced but not overly precious.
And so rather than implode with excitement alone in a corner, I tracked down obsessive chess fanatic and former metal/hardcore drummer Thom Sonny Green to gush at him and hear about what life’s like in a new UK buzzband.
Herewith, our chat:
The album just came out a couple of weeks ago in the UK to near rapturous praise. How’s it feel to have your first thing out there in the world?
We’ve come such a long way. We finished the album in January and we’ve been waiting so long and waiting for people to hear it. People who have come to our shows, and our friends from university that we’ve met, they’ve seen us play in living rooms, and we can’t wait for people to hear what we’ve done and we’ve put all our energy into this record and everyone who’s worked on it, has put so much effort into it, it’s like a gift to people who already like our tracks.
An Awesome Wave feels so fully formed and we’re all clearly excited by it. But does it feel like it’s already a million years old to you lot?
In a way it does, and for most of the tracks we’ve had for a couple of years at least, We’ve had a lot of people who come and see us and who are genuinely excited about it, and you kind of struggle sometimes because it’s not fresh in our eyes and our ears anymore. We still love it to pieces, but it’s something different. But it always will be something different, because we wrote it and we hear it in a different way.
How prolific a band is Alt-J?
We’ve got just about enough tracks for another album and we’ve got tracks that we’ve got on the slow-burner, that we deliberately left off the album because we wanted to save them – there’s a few like that. This album we’re putting out now is so carefully considered. Every track belongs on there, and we’d like to say the same about the next album, it’s not going to be tracks that we recorded because we have to, we want to keep recording as we go, so that we can make the second album the same effort and make sure it’s genuine.
There’s reference to triangles in “Tessellate”, which is cool. But the press continue to squawk about the fact that your band name is a symbol. Prince was doing it years ago, why do you think folks are so hung up about it?
Perhaps it does come across slightly pretentious and for people who don’t know us and what the symbol means. They might just think we’ve done it because we’re trying hard to be cool and different. And also people just want to know what it is. It does get a bit tedious, actually. I’m hoping one day we won’t be a new band and people won’t keep asking. It’s just something we could all agree on, and it looks cool and it sounds cool and we like it. And that’s as far as it goes.
What does the Delta mean to you?
At the time we had to change our name, we were called Films, and there was an American band called The Films, and there would have been confusion in listings and line-ups and we had to change it. The Delta symbol can represent change – in equations – and that’s how it’s relevant in that we felt like we were changing. Beyond that, it’s not really deep.
I tried to figure it out on PC and Alt-J is definitely easier to say than “Insert-Symbol-394-Alt-X”
Is that what it is? Oh cool! I like that.
There you go, my present to you. Meanwhile, how does a guy who likes metal like Lamb of God and Meshugga, end up in a band that’s pretty un-metal and one that everyone seems to like to call folk.
We met at university and we were friends anyway, and Joe was playing the guitar a lot and him and Gwil started playing together now and again. Then they found out that I played the drums. I was in metal bands back at home since I was about 12, so they basically said to me, ‘we’re playing and it’s not metal but if you fancy coming along, come along.’
So I thought, yeah, okay. And I was really curious as to what it would be like and curious to see if I could challenge myself, because this would be a lot more minimal to what I was playing. As soon as I heard the opening tracks the other three played, I’d never heard anything like it. It felt like it was music that I’d been looking for and that I should be hearing, but I just wasn’t yet aware of that fact. It filled a gap. It was amazing. So I changed and stripped down my drums and started to figure out how I could contribute. In our live set the drums are still pretty intense. The tracks might not give that impression, but they are complex. I tried to make sure that they are complex and that there’s something different going on.
So I still have the drive and grooves that I got from listening to and being in metal bands, and I suppose any kind of music affects you in some innate way, and it has a sustaining effect. Like metal – thrash metal – is pretty similar to a lot of classical, orchestral strings and intense music. It’s the same rhythms and same tempos.
I used to drum in metal bands but now I drum in Alt-J, and I don’t think I’ll ever say I’m a metal drummer or a folk drummer or whatever. I’m just a drummer.
And we never aimed to write a specific style of music. We’re kind of pretty proud of that. \m/