Alt together now

ROCK: Are Alt the Cream of the Nineties? Or are they just a duff acronym? Nicholas Barber finds out
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"CAN YOU imagine if Abba were called Baab or Baba. That would be terrible, wouldn't it? It's essential that we call ourselves Alt. Although we have considered Lat." So says Andy White, the Irish singer-songwriter. Sitting next to him at a beer-tent trestle table, backstage at the Glastonbury Festival, are two of his friends: the Hothouse Flower, Liam O'Maonlai, and the former Split Enz leader and sometime inhabitant of Crowded House, Tim Finn. Put the first letters of their Christian names together and you get their band, Alt. It not only means "old" in German, and "something like an elbow joint" in Irish, it also allows puns like the title of their debut album, Altitude (Parlophone). It remains, for all that, a pretty duff name for a band.

But Alt are no ordinary group, they're a supergroup - ie, three independently successful artists joining together. So with which other supergroup do they most identify: Cream, Little Village, or the Traveling Wilburys? Tim opts for Cream. "We're not virtuosos, but the way Cream combine loose jamming and pop, I feel very akin to that, more than to the mateship and laddishness of Little Village and the Wilburys."

Andy then rejects all my reference points, deciding instead that the group relate most of all to Abba, because that name is an acronym of its members' initials too. This is a significant moment: it's not often that Alt make jokes. Genial drinking companions they may be, but they are also deeply serious people. You wouldn't think so on listening to their record.

Altitude is an instinctive, ramshackle, beggar's banquet of rock'n'roll mixed up with Irish folk (some of it was written in Andy and Liam's hometown, Dublin) and rhythms from the outback (it was completed in Tim's home, Melbourne). It benefits from some irresistible choruses, and just about the only three-part harmonies in popular music which haven't been stolen from the Beatles. If there's an occasional plink of a wrong note on an echoey upright piano, they couldn't give a Castlemaine XXXX. "You can actually hear on the record Andy whispering to Liam, 'OK, it's your verse'."

But though the album sounds like - and more or less is - a boozy busk, Alt are the brand spanking newest of all New Men, glowing with political and emotional correctness. The opening track's chorus is a "flag" for the band's philosophy: "We're all men, but we're not the hurting kind."

Take, for example, the tale Tim recounts of a gig they did in the Australian Christian community of Noosa. "We found out afterwards that the guy who booked us had seen the letters A, L and T in the sky and had interpreted them as meaning 'All Life Terminated'. When he heard there was a band with the same letters, it seemed too good to be true for him."

"It was quite scary," says Andy. "We always thought of Alt standing for things like 'Art, Laughter and Tears', and suddenly we're confronted by this guy's apocalyptic vision."

I'm just about to let myself chuckle at this divine madness when Liam leans forward. "I wouldn't blame anyone for having a vision of Armageddon these days," he says gravely, sensitive even to the feelings of religious zealots. "It's pretty appalling the way things are." And the others nod in pensive agreement.

This, it seems, is the price you pay for songs that are so heartfelt and personal, so melancholy yet uplifting. "We've found that people absolutely connect with it or absolutely hate it," says Andy. "It stirs up great emotion."

Indeed, they say, their concerts have had grown men sobbing. "The gentleness of men is scary to other men," Andy muses, but tears of joy would be another explanation. The rare thing about the band's live shows is that they do seem live. Alt, well, alternate between instruments, and respond to one another as they play: Liam's gum-chewing, Mickey-Rourke cool reacts with Andy's droopy-eyed self-deprecation, with Tim's art-school melodic gift.

On stage it's alchemy, but it's risky to be so fluid on a record. Weren't they tempted to overdub a guitar here and tweak the odd lyric there? Liam demurs. "No matter how smooth you make something, there is always imperfection. So you might as well celebrate it."

Tim: "It's like when you do demo tapes for an album and find yourself preferring the demos."

Andy: "People always use the word 'demo' pejoratively, but if you've ever heard a tape of John Lennon writing 'Strawberry Fields Forever' on the guitar, it's absolutely perfect. We're not saying we're Picasso, but if Picasso drew just a few lines on this table it would be beautiful. Likewise, Liam could sing 'Happy Birthday' and the feeling he's got would still be there."

Part of this ethos derives from seeing a Mandala exhibition in Dublin. Tibetan monks spent a week making a sand picture, and then, once it was finished, swept it into an urn and deposited it in the Liffey, before starting again.

"I went to a talk given by the monks and they were amazed that art could be stored away until it was worth a fortune while millions of people starved," remembers Tim. "It's a different way of looking at art." But if you throw art away, no one else can enjoy it. "I remember going to the Louvre, and there were 300 people crammed in a room to see the Mona Lisa, ignoring the other paintings," says Tim. "Is that enjoying art?"

It's at this point I suggest that Alt are more serious people than I would have expected. They nod thoughtfully for a while, until Andy, the joker in the pack, objects. "We're very funny sometimes. We laugh a lot. We sometimes spend whole evenings laughing. I've got a little boy who's two and he loves to laugh. He's just learnt how. He's taught us to laugh."

Yes, it seems that Alt can imbue even the act of having a giggle with spiritual, New Man significance. "He taught us the importance of laughing," says Liam. Typical.

! Alt play Aberdeen Lemon Tree, 01224 642230, Wed; Glasgow Garage, 0141 332 1120, Fri; Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, 01902 312030, Sat; Cambridge Corn Exchange, 01223 357851, 17 July; Forum, NW5, 0171 284 2200, 18 July.