Last night, Alt-J proved the bookies right by walking away with the 2012 Mercury Music Prize for their debut album An Awesome Wave. Earlier in the year, we spoke to guitarist Gwil Sainsbury about how this most unique of bands came together, the reaction to their success and how they have managed to create such an original sound…
“I think people give us too much credit for what we do. We don’t really think about it too much, which is a good thing. You just see what happens, which is quite a healthy approach. Joe writes the songs and spends a lot of time alone crafting them, then he brings them to us pretty much complete. Sometimes we take them apart, put in a verse or a chorus. Yet even using those terms is wrong, they’re not ones that we consider when we’re hanging out and making music. We just see how it goes, it’s like a filter system for four people who have quite different views on how music should sound getting to the point where we agree on things. It’s a consensus between four people who disagree most of the time”.
How do the original recordings that you and Joe (Newman, guitar and vocals) compare to what you’re doing now?
“They were a lot more basic. We were in our first year at University and we’d talked about doing music but were a little apprehensive about making the commitment. When we started messing around on Garage Band and found that we liked what we were doing. It’s just acoustic guitar along with some odd things like Casio adverts from the ‘80s, feeling out how Joe’s voice worked. He hadn’t sung in front of anyone before so it was quite tense as he tried to work out his range. I think those recordings are quite charming”.
The thing about Joe is that he seems to have no end to his range..
“He spends a lot of time practicing in bathrooms, just seeing what he can do. He seems to be able to do quite a lot”.
After forming the band, you took your time to get the sound right didn’t you?
“When we were in Leeds we didn’t have any intention of playing live. Firstly we were a bit scared but also we were more interesting in making recordings. Gigs happened because friends were asking us what we were working on and we felt obliged to put on our first show in the front room of our house. It was quite DIY and then did some very stressful open mic nights, it was very off the cuff. We didn’t know how to change guitar strings or to bring enough leads. Sometimes we’d have to ask other bands to lend us a guitar, which was a massive faux pas. No-one was showing us the ropes so we found our own way”.
Did Leeds suit you as a city more than, say, London or Manchester?
“We were never ever part of any scene there, we didn’t find any bands that we liked that much or looked up to. Maybe the student lifestyle has an important effect, there are lots of different colleges. Three of us did fine art degrees so we were able to work the band around that. Knowing that you had some sort of income, even if it was a student loan, was really important to us. I don’t think any of us would be in a band if it wasn’t this one.”
And the rising interest didn’t effect you?
The only people who came to our gigs were immediate friends so we didn’t feel under any pressure to experiment, it didn’t feel that serious. We were just doing it and not thinking that far ahead. I still find it quite difficult to think of us as a band rather than four mates from uni who are just hanging out and having fun with our instruments. It’s uncomfortable for me to talk about the concept of being a professional band but now it is starting to feel like a job and a lot calmer. All this crappy equipment that we’ve been making do with for years is gradually being replaced, which gives you more confidence. It’s kind of sad though.”
What struck as most about An Awesome Wave was that, despite all the studio trickery, the vocals are still very much at the core..
“Joe and Gus spend a lot of time working on that and you can hear it, but not in a pre-conceived way. Most of the time they get drunk and sing old English folk songs to each other. It used to be quite an uncomfortable thing for them to do but now it’s very comfortable. You can hear that ease of company with them.”
Even so, it’s not the easiest of records to find a way into, is it?
“When the album first started going out as a promo we were on tour in Europe and a promoter in Berlin said he loved the record but wondered why we made the start so hard for people to get into. ‘Intro’ doesn’t quite let you sink into it, then you have the a capella interlude so it sounds like an album that’s going to be much more left-field and challenging before it settles into something more established. That’s important though, it’s like a little test. We’re always shocked by the variety of people who are fans. Even our parents are into our music, which is a strange scenario. I don’t know how I feel about that.”
A deluxe version of An Awesome Wave is out now. Alt-J play the Olympia Theatre on 3rd May 2013.