When Alt-J stood back and considered what it had accomplished on its wildly experimental debut, An Awesome Wave, no one in the band was predicting world domination.
“The first thing we thought was that it sounded so fucking weird that we weren’t going to release it,” says guitarist-bassist Gwil Sainsbury. “We figured if we did we’d get dropped by our label. But we felt that at least we achieved the goal of making an album—one of my goals was wanting to release an album at some point in my life. So given all that, to have had the response to the record that we’ve had is something that we never would have ever predicted.”
What pleases the Leeds-based quartet immensely is the way that the critically celebrated An Awesome Wave caught on organically. Long before the album scored the 2012 Mercury Prize, Alt-J found itself embraced by the common people.
“I wonder whether all this could have ever happened without the aid of the massive tool that is the Internet,” Sainsbury says. “We sort of got immediate global exposure. In the U.K. and Europe we’re on small independent labels that don’t have massive amounts of money, so our whole album launch was based around the web. By streaming the album, everyone around the world could hear it, and that made more difference than we ever could have imagined.”
What the world heard and then embraced is a record that’s as wonderfully weird as it is oddly accessible. Without pledging allegiance to any one genre, the album references drug-haze electronica, plaintive folk, backpack hip-hop, off-kilter indie-rock, and classic pop. Often confessional, songs are salted with references to everything from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Ultimately, An Awesome Wave sounds like the work of smart, hyper-creative guys who probably smoke a lot of high-grade weed. Sainsbury acknowledges that there’s some truth to that, adding that the record’s fierce originality might be a result of the insular way it was created.
“When we were making the album, we never ever talked about any genres or any other band or musician,” he says. “What you essentially have is four people who get on really well musically, as well as all of us being the closest of friends. It’s four people being intuitive and feeding off what each other are doing. The interest in music we had in university was very nomadic. It was basically us going round to each other’s houses, getting high, and drinking, and then looking up interesting music on YouTube. That would go from the Alan Lomax collection of Negro work songs to the heaviest of dubstep tracks.”
Because of the artistic ground that they cover on An Awesome Wave, Sainsbury notes, a lot of folks have got the wrong idea about the men of Alt-J, who include drummer Thom Green, singer-guitarist Joe Newman, and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton.
“None of us are musos,” he says simply. “People usually assume that we are really into vinyl and have massive record collections—that we know all of the classic albums. Actually, I think that we’re fairly undereducated musically, especially when it comes to the canon. We have things that we like, but we haven’t had any sort of great, thorough education in music.
“In some ways we sort of take a completely amateurish approach to music,” he continues. “I know that I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as a musician, because I simply don’t know what notes I’m playing. I actually don’t know anything about music at all—I just play with my ear, and that’s how Joe plays and how Thom plays as well. Gus, the keyboardist, is from a formal music background. He went to a cathedral school and he’s done all of his grades in piano. The rest of us don’t know what we’re doing. We’re just feeling things out. That’s why it might sound eclectic—because in a way it’s coming from a place of real ignorance.”
And perhaps because of that, there’s something pure about An Awesome Wave, which might explain why the record has been embraced by forward-thinking fans across the globe. Even Sainsbury cops to being amazed at some of those the record has reached.
When it’s suggested that a song like electro-strafed underworld soul number “Breezeblocks” is so fucked up that it’s hard to imagine your average punter in a pub relating to it, the guitarist counters with a story. The message of that story? Well, it’s probably that Alt-J really had nothing to worry about when it first stood back and thought about what it had done with An Awesome Wave.
“In Europe, there’s this thing called Ibiza Rocks,” he says. “I don’t know how familiar you are with that kind of party culture, but it’s basically Brits going there to get wasted and get laid. Oh, and Germans as well. You go there and stay in this huge party hotel where people are drinking from the moment they get up, and then continue all day and all night. They get up and do the same thing again. It’s people in wife beaters and straightened hair who only want to get laid. And yet they liked our set. I found that really weird—that essentially a group of people who really only listen to EDM somehow got into our music, and got some value from it.”