alt-J (?)’s name takes a little explaining. Pronounced “alt-J”, the delta sign is created when you hold down the alt key on your computer keyboard and punch ‘J’, providing your computer is a Mac and not a PC, that is. It’s more than an un-Google-able symbol that looks good on a T shirt, though. As guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury notes, “in mathematical equations it’s used to show change,” and the band’s relatively new name came at a turning point in their lives.
Gwil, Joe Newman [guitar/vocals], Gus Unger-Hamilton [keyboards] and Thom Green [drums] met at Leeds University in 2007. Gus studied English Literature; the other three Fine Art. By their second year of studies, Joe had played Gwil a handful of his own songs inspired by his guitar-playing dad and hallucinogens, and the pair had begun recording them in their dorm rooms, ready for sharing with a world still hung up on MOR, cookie-cutter indie. As Joe remembers: “Gwil was originally a producer as much as a musician, because he was GarageBand-ing my original songs. But personally, I was just interested in my friends back home in Southampton hearing that I was doing music. I thought, ‘I’ll get a Myspace up, and when I go home for Christmas they’ll all come up to me and comment on what they thought.’”
Needless to say, the response to Joe’s hushed falsetto yelps and Gwil’s rudimentary sampling skills was good. When Thom was played the tracks he joined the band straight away. “I hadn’t heard anything like it,” he says. “It was music I was looking for, I just didn’t know I was. I just loved it.”
Gus completed the band’s lineup and together – first as Daljit Dhaliwal and then as the slightly easier to spell Films – the four friends spent the next two years playing art-show fundraisers for their course-mates and venues around town, developing a precise and unique brand of alt. pop that draws on poignant folk verses, crushing synths, smart hip hop syncopations and tight vocal harmonies. Their then moniker of Films had to go by the summer of 2011, though, largely to avoid confusing the band with Californian punk troupe The Films. But with all members having recently graduated and the band planning a move to Cambridge, it couldn’t have come at a better time – alt-J (?) meant change and it also gave them a unique name to go with the unique ‘folk-step’ that they now concoct in the basement of a terrace house in Cambridgeshire.
Since then, attention, admiration and favourable comparisons have come thick and fast for alt-J (?). Even before the release of their debut single on Loud And Quiet Recording last October (a record that has long since sold out), the band was likened to Wild Beasts, ‘In Rainbows’ era Radiohead, The xx and Anthony & The Johnsons – four acclaimed acts noticeable by their ability to create the kind of patient, sophisticated, intricate music that alt-J (?) do. “Nick Drake meets Gangsta Rap,” went another likening. An early demo of the skittish, euphoric ‘Breezeblocks’ gained healthy radio play without even being released; alt-J (?)’s Soundcloud managed to generate over 70,000 plays in its first 6 months with little to no promotion.
So much of the band’s sound is their own, perhaps because, as Gwil puts it, “we never had any ambitions at all”. From Joe’s high soul cry and Thom’s refusal to drum with cymbals (a rule first born out of necessity, because he couldn’t fit a full drum kit in Gwil’s bedroom where the band first practiced, so instead used saucepans), to the sparse guitars and Gus' delicate key clunks on songs like 'Bloodflood', a neat sound-bite for ?’s music is yet to be coined, and perhaps never will be. And by challenging what constitutes folk, hip hop, indie and pop music, the band have quickly found themselves in the studio at the beginning of 2012, recording their debut album for Infectious Music with long-time producer Charlie Andrew (Micachu & The Shapes, Eugene McGuinness).
Their debut album will further explore alt-J (?)’s varied soundscapes and percussive, experimental grooves, but it’s also a record that isn’t as stringently leftfield as some might be expecting. Veering wildly from psychedelic avant pop to skeletal folktronica, the finished album promises to trade in understated beauty one minute and epic oddities the next, just as you’d expect from a debut album that tackles everything from love to bullfighting to the heroic life of 1930s war photographer Gerda Taro, crushed by a tank on the frontline. Other tracks are inspired by cinema, including ‘Matilda’ (about Natalie Portman’s character in Luc Besson’s Leon) and the Good The Bad And The Ugly-referencing ‘Tessellate’; others seem to have come to the band as unexpectedly as they come to us, sounding like great experimental pop acts we already know about, yet somehow only ever completely like the band with a triangle for a name.