Alt-J: Be the change
Ryan Summerlin April 18, 2013
ASPEN – Radiohead. Gwil Sainsbury loves the band, and doesn’t think much of the name.
“Radiohead – if you really think about it, you see it’s probably quite a bad name for a band,” he said. “But names don’t mean so much about a band; it’s just your identification. It’s like a person’s name – it’s not that relevant to the character of the person. Red Hot Chili Peppers – that’s a terrible name. But it’s fine to have a terrible name.”
Sainsbury’s indifference towards names extends to his own band. He doesn’t go so far as to say that the name is terrible, just that it is essentially meaningless. Even if the name of the quartet is Alt-J, the keypad code on a Mac computer for the Greek letter, delta – ∆ – which in scientific terminology and beyond is the symbol for change. Which means that, potentially, it’s loaded with meaning.
Only not for Sainsbury, who plays bass and guitar, or for his mates Joe Newman (vocals and guitar), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards) and Thom Green (drums). “For us, it didn’t necessarily represent anything,” the 25-year-old Sainsbury said from Southern California, the day before the band was scheduled to play at the Coachella festival. “I was just messing around with the computer keyboard and his alt-J. The symbol looked kind of mysterious, esoteric, maybe interesting to play with. We thought that would be interesting, to see if we could get away with that. And it’s seemed to work.”
Sainsbury said the name and what it represents have been common questions since the band adopted Alt-J as its moniker, sometime in 2010 or 2011. So he and his bandmates have had plenty of time to reflect on how the change theme applies to them. I wondered whether the name has come to mean more to the band over the past few years.
Nope. “We get asked if we have some manifesto about change. We don’t,” Sainsbury said. “And it’s come to mean less and less.”
From the outside, though, there has been a lot of transformation around Alt-J, some of it having to do with band names. When the quartet first realized that taking a name would be appropriate, they settled on Daljit Dhaliwal, which is also the name of a prominent London-based newscaster. Not long after, they changed the band moniker to Films, but as they achieved some popularity, they saw that they could be running into some confusion (or possibly even fisticuffs and litigation) with the Films, a punkish band from California. Alt-J was unlikely to cause any identity confusion.
But the more significant transformation had to do with artistry, not names. In 2007, when Sainsbury and his mates were getting to know one another at Leeds University, more or less smack in the middle of the island of Great Britain, they were not focused on music. Sainsbury, Newman and Green were studying fine arts; Unger-Hamilton was an English Lit major. Unger-Hamilton had been a chorister and had training on piano and Thom had spent a bit of time banging in a metal band; otherwise, there wasn’t much of a musical background among the foursome.
But one day Newman showed up in Sainsbury’s rooms with a batch of lyrics he’d been writing since his early teenage years. Shyly – Newman had little confidence in his soft, high voice, and only rudimentary skills on guitar – he played his songs. “I thought they were great,” Sainsbury said. For more than six months, Sainsbury used his own basic skills on the Garageband software to sculpt the songs into recorded tracks.
The two were constrained not only by their limited music talents but also by the equipment and physical space available to them. Green didn’t have a drum kit – not that there would have been room for it – so he played the rhythm on a single snare drum. (He still doesn’t play cymbals.) Newman’s voice wasn’t especially powerful. The rest of the sound was adjusted downward in volume, and what came out was a hushed, inward brand of music. Which was fine with them; none of the musicians was much interested in what you’d call rocking out.
“We weren’t scenesters. We didn’t watch live music,” Sainsbury said. “We were into albums, into things that would have been lost or forgotten, old records of folk music or dubstep.”
Even though they didn’t fancy themselves musicians – “I still wouldn’t classify myself as a musician. I don’t know much about music,” Sainsbury said – as art students, they naturally treated the endeavor with a measure of seriousness. “It was as much a social event as practice. But it was disciplined. We knew it was exciting,” Sainsbury continued. Only when they graduated, and began living as artists on state benefits, did they begin to think seriously about a career and pursue a recording contract.
An early track, “Breezeblocks,” a mix of rock, electronics, artsong and offbeat harmony vocals that was for them uncommonly aggressive, got healthy radio play. Still, when the band – now known as Alt-J – began making a first album, it was well under the radar. Sainsbury considered that ideal for a handful of guys who still saw themselves as art students as much as musicians.
“There’s a fundamental difference between music courses and fine art courses. In music, you’d focus on songwriting, performance, theory – how to make music, in very prescribed, traditional ways,” he said. “In fine art, you’re taught to question everything, all the time, and to be critical of society, yourselves, your peers. You can’t make something good if you don’t know how to be critical. The course we did, it could be brutal at times, but it gave us that – how to be friendly critical, how you’re going to sort it out, make it all work.”
Alt-J thus set out to make an album that passed their own critical judgment. “We didn’t think of being a successful pop act. We made an album we wanted to hear,” Sainsbury said. “We tried to make it as interesting as possible. And we knew we’d be touring this album: You don’t want to tour an album that you’re going to tire of easily.”
That album has been an unlikely success. Released last year, “An Awesome Wave” earned the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize, whose past winners include PJ Harvey, Portishead and Gomez. Sainsbury was speaking to me from a production hangar on the set of “Conan,” preparing for a taping on Thursday.
“An Awesome Wave” has echoes of Radiohead – “About the only band we all agree on,” Sainsbury said. “But we never had discussions about influences. We never thought it was relevant. The way we work is quite intuitive.” In the way electronic sounds meet up with a folk sensibility, Alt-J’s music is also related to Animal Collective and One Eskimo. There are reminders of the art-school background, with references to the 1930s war photographer Gerda Taro, and to Natalie Portman’s character in the film “Leon.”
Alt-J makes its local debut on Sunday at Belly Up, with Los Angeles group Wildfire! Wildfire! opening. Sainsbury says that the performance aspect of being musicians hasn’t completely sunk in for the band.
“It depends what kind of performers you want to be,” he said. “At a piano recital, you’re not going to have the pianist jumping about, shouting. We’re not exactly energetic. We go out and basically reproduce our album and a few other things. We don’t kick the walls and stuff. It’s more like a recital than a performance.”