The first time I call Alt-J there’s no answer. All too aware of the tight time allocations for all interviews I persist until, eventually, someone picks up. Relieved, I brightly introduce myself. The voice on the other end is wary.
“Oh right… who are you supposed to be interviewing?”
“Er… Alt-J?” I helpfully proffer like a colossal berk (I’ve not been given any information beyond ‘call the band at this time’). The voice asks if he can call me back; he wasn’t aware of any interview and has to check with his tour manager. A few more minutes of waiting and Gus Unger-Hamilton calls back, apologising for the suspicion: he accidentally tweeted his number to thousands of followers the other day and has since been inundated with calls and texts; random numbers are not to be trusted. He needn’t have bothered explaining: I regularly receive a similar reaction every time I call my father. “You can put that in your article, if you like,” he graciously offers.
It’s exactly this sort of thoughtful attitude that marks Alt-J out as part of the new ‘polite’ breed of rock – a type more likely to celebrate their Mercury Award win by taking their parents for a slap-up meal than indulge in any of those traditional rock star excesses, which let’s face it, aren’t really viable in our economic climate; lobbing tellies out the window is not only unsustainable in today’s questionable market, but is actually incredibly environmentally unfriendly too. (Though they did piss off the edge of a balcony once – viva rock!) It’s all part of this bigger move towards the gentrification of rock we became all too aware of in 2012.
“Since the rise of hip-hop and other music and stuff, I don’t think rock music really attracts underprivileged people in the same way it used to maybe, in the early 20th century. So inevitably, rock music has become somewhat gentrified,” Gus muses. The downside of this being an incredibly bland landscape of rock, from which Mumford and Sons enjoyed an unprecedented rise as the shining stars with their excruciatingly anodyne second album – the experience of listening to which performed the aural equivalent of being repeatedly slapped round the face with a damp pilchard – and which left music journalists compiling their ‘best of’ lists to nod sagely and ruminate on the yawning absence of guitar bands on them.
Then there was Alt-J’s debut, An Awesome Wave, which stuck out as a glorious exception to this: complex and accomplished, impossible to pigeon-hole (the band offered ‘trip-folk’ and ‘jump-folk’ under duress), it spans any number of genres whilst boasting an intelligence that goes beyond the crowning nerd geometry loving, cinematic and literature lyrical references and it’s-a-delta-command-on-a-Mac-for-fuck’s-sake name pretensions. I suggest that, since their win, they also have the added accolade of one of the most famous songs about cannibalism, with Breezeblocks. Gus laughs. “Yeah exactly. Almost definitely. Apart from… I can’t think of any apart from, actually, so yeah, why not.”
The bookies favourite from the outset, the album was garnering enough attention even before the win, partly due to their canny ability to navigate the industry with their DIY approach. “I think that ultimately is just respecting your fans, whether it be by giving them original packaging for the money they’re spending on your cd or by letting them listen to your album illegally before they choose to buy it. That’s the correct way to do things, particularly in the current climate of the music industry; you have to give your fans more respect. You can’t just expect them to buy your album if you’re treating them like idiots.”
It was also entirely fitting for a band whose love of cinema originally led them to call themselves FILMS ? quickly vetoed following some confusion with American band The Films –and conceive their debut as a concept album, with each song based on a different film (see Matilda and Leon), that it soon snagged the attention of David O Russell, who approached them to have their music feature on a film soundtrack; Buffalo was released as part of the soundtrack for his film Silver Linings Playbook. “It’s a very, very powerful way to have your music heard when it’s sound tracking… so when a director like David O Russell, someone whose work we really like, gets in touch and says he wants us to write some songs for his film, you don’t really think about it, you’re just like yes!”
But whether they needed the Mercury to guarantee a rosy future or not, as Gus points out, it does allow them some “breathing space” when it comes to their second record: “Even if we take a few years till we release the next album, people will still listen to it. There will be an audience for our next album, however long it takes, having won the mercury.” Despite having rubbished the idea of the Mercury Award curse, they’re still not entirely immune to the inherent pressure either. “There’s a lot of expectations now about your second album: will it be as good as the first one? A lot of people are going to look into rubbishing it, say it’s not as good as the first one; equally a lot of people will be disappointed, genuinely disappointed, if they don’t like this album as much now. People will really want to like that.” Either way, it seems unlikely that Alt-J will fade into obscurity and irrelevance, as was the case for some of the Mercury alumni, but let’s hope it’s not years before we find out if An Awesome Wave was simply a precocious debut or an auspicious precursor to an exciting career for an innovative and inimitable young band.
Later that day, I get a text from Gus mistakenly addressed to his mum. For a second, I wrestle with the temptation to text back in character, but I resist. I could never take advantage of such nice boys.