Alt-J: the geeks in line for the top prize

With a debut album that's up for the Mercury Prize and a fast-selling tour, Alt-J are about to hit the big time. But it's far too early to compare them with Radiohead they say

On a scale of one to 10 – 10 being excellent – this year must rate in the hundreds for Cambridge-based four-piece Alt-J.

Having released their debut album, An Awesome Wave, to a veritable standing ovation from critics and respectable commercial success, the band named after the Apple keyboard shortcut for a delta symbol has already been dubbed "the new Radiohead", and forthcoming headline tours on both sides of the Atlantic are almost sold out. Oh, and their record has just been nominated for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize, having already been odds-on favourite to win it before the nominations were even announced.

This string of achievements is made even more impressive by the fact they are mostly founded on word-of-mouth recommendations. Yet Joe Newman (vocals/guitar), Gwil Sainsbury (bass/ guitar), Thom Green (drums) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard) are the epitome of modesty when we meet on one of the sunniest days of the year.

"It's very flattering to be tipped to win [the Mercury], but I don't think we should take it too seriously," says 23-year-old Gus, the youngest of the four. "It's a dream come true for all of us to be nominated and now we're just really looking forward to the night…" he adds. "And we're particularly looking forward to [eating] the chicken in a basket," Gwil jokes.

The lads are clearly great mates, almost constantly laughing and completing each other's sentences. Having met at Leeds University around five years ago, it wasn't long before they were writing tracks in between studying for their degrees (three fine art and one English between them).

"We worked out pretty quickly that we had a kind of chemistry as friends that we could translate into our music," says frontman Joe.

But the band admits they were shy of talking about the music they made. They insist, as Gwil explains, that they still "never collectively think about bands or what we want to sound like".

"It was almost like the love that dare not speak its name," jokes Gus. "We just thought, 'Let's see if it works'. And thankfully, it did." At the cost of their university lifestyle, they spent years cultivating their sound, reaching a turning point when they wrote "Tesselate" – a passionate yet menacing song that uses a geometrical analogy for sex.

Alt-J go to great lengths to temper the praise An Awesome Wave has received. But it is an impressive, inventive record that almost feels too mature for a debut, with songs such as "Breezeblocks" exploring the textured themes of love, relationships and mortality, set to a layer cake of creeping synths, clattering beats and haunting vocals.

"The strange thing about making an album is that you can never ever hear it for the first time, and I still have loads of things I'd like to change," says Gwil. "Ultimately we are really proud of it, but we were aware that plenty of good albums still go unnoticed."

The band is beginning to come to terms with the attention they are receiving from a rapidly growing following of "actual fans", as a wide-eyed Thom describes them. "Some people made T-shirts just for the Reading [festival] show," he says. But Alt-J has also learned to take criticism. "After a gig we're straight on Twitter to look at what people are saying – unashamedly so," says Gus. Gwil agrees: "If you don't want to know what people are saying, I don't know what you're scared of."

Most negative comments accuse Alt-J of being pretentious or posh – the latter of which Thom denies outright. "Some of the greatest people in music have been pretentious, and isn't that what being in a band is all about?" says Gus. "Plus we're writing songs about what we think – that's pretty pretentious."

Joe – the driving force behind the song-writing process – comes up with the basic outline on acoustic guitar and writes the lyrics before taking it to the band. They write their parts and restructure the song together. "Then we take it to our producer [Charlie Andrew], who might say this bit isn't working…" Joe says.

"It's inevitable that you take the criticism personally…" says Gwil. "I've cried," Gus admits. Gwil agrees that he has too. "For the record – I haven't cried," Joe smiles.

The acclaim Alt-J has received, and the hype around the Mercury Prize nomination, "puts quite a lot of pressure on us", says Joe. With an expression that reflects the weight of the expectations now placed on the band, he says he believes the comparisons with Radiohead are "premature".

"Radiohead have had an amazing career and we've only just done our first album," he says, pondering the potential pitfalls of the band getting ahead of itself. "We don't ever want to find ourselves writing an album that we don't feel comfortable with. It'd be horrible to hear anyone say, 'Alt-J: First album was great, second album was really good, third album – they just blew it."

For the time being, Alt-J can be content with breaking America, even before they've finished breaking the UK and Europe. Currently touring to promote the album's US release this month, they say they're happy to "blitz" as many opportunities as they can. Even on the road, the band is focused. "We've been playing live together so much recently that I felt as though we've got a lot better as musicians," says Thom.

No wild tour stories? "We invented a pretty cool game called 'Throwy' while on tour in Spain," says Joe. The band laughs at this, the wildest story they can muster. "You play catch with a bottle that's half full of water but you have to move with the movement of the water in the bottle…"

"It's kind of like Hacky Sack meets contemporary dance… we just had too much hash," Gus laughs.

The hectic touring lifestyle has made the band lazy, says Thom. It may be hard to believe coming from former students, but Gus agrees: "You have everything done for you."

"As soon as we're done here, we're just going to stand and wait for someone to come and pick us up," says Thom. "And then it's on to the next thing."

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore