An education for Alt-J

University is a unique environment for fostering musical talent says Chloe Hamilton, as evidenced by this year's Mercury Prize winners

Students get a lot of stick. They sleep until noon, live off baked beans and drink their own bodyweight in beer. But for some, university offers more than just the opportunity to pull off 10-pint-challenges as evidenced by band-of-the-moment Alt-J who met while studying.

Alt-J isn’t the first band to flourish at university: Coldplay, Queen and Pink Floyd all met among the beer pong and pot noodle, taking advantage of social groups and music facilities to develop their sounds.

The hard-working Mercury Prize-winners, who have crept up on the music industry and taken it by storm, began recording in their bedrooms while in their second year at Leeds University. Two years later, in 2011, the foursome signed a deal with Infectious Records before winning one of the most coveted awards in the music industry for An Awesome Wave last month.

The boys met by chance, a happy example of being in the right place at the right time. Gus-Unger Hamilton, keyboardist, says: “We had no ambitions to be in bands before we came to university. Maybe we hadn’t met the right people.”

Known for their experimental style, the group went by a number of different names before deciding on Alt-J(∆). The moniker was born after bassist Gwil Sainsbury discovered the Delta shortcut on his Mac.

 “Alt-J was the only name we could all agree on. We didn’t really bother to think about the name, we were more interested in making music,” said Gus.

The band comes from drastically different musical backgrounds. Gus started his musical career as a choirboy at King’s School Ely, while drummer Thom Green used to be something of a metal head.

“Our music is different to what we’re all into. We almost shut out our musical background,” says Gus.  “We didn’t discuss what kind of music we were going to make. I didn’t really know what type of music it was, it felt instinctive.”

University offers a unique environment in which to develop musical talent. Like-minded people, lots of spare time and late night jamming sessions make for a killer combination. A student band even made an appearance in Channel 4 comedy Fresh Meat this week, after characters Kingsley and Oregon formed a ‘house band’. Unfortunately, they clashed over whose song to perform and broke up minutes before going on stage.

Tom Morley studies Popular Music at Goldsmith’s College and also lives with one of his band-mates. Since moving in together, Tom and Steffan have exploited their close friendship, embarking on a number projects together.

“It’s so difficult to find someone who’s committed, but we help each other out. We’re both songwriters, so we give each other feedback,” says Tom.  “Sometimes it makes me feel guilty if he’s is writing a song and I’m doing something else. It’s healthy though.”

Tom admits there could be trouble on the horizon if either one became more successful than the other. He says: “No, I don’t think he would give up his music to be in my band.”

Charmingly, Gus speaks highly of his band-mate’s approach to song writing and tells me that Alt-J’s new-found fame won’t change the way they write music. 

“Joe writes the lyrics. He has a very good approach. He doesn’t write them in one go, he spends a few months collecting words and images,” says Gus. “Our approach to writing songs will be the same. Everything has a reason to be there. We want every line and instrumentation to be justified.”

Alt-J are the new poster boys for aspiring musicians. They’re one of few success stories, but with the music industry revamping itself and musicians recording their own EPs, there will undoubtedly be further successes to come. DIY musicians are taking their future, and the future of the industry, into their own hands. 

In the meantime, failed rock-stars will be digging out dusty cassette tapes and faded photos, and explaining to their incredulous children that they too were in a band at university.

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