Alt-J (∆) Q&A
Written by Alana Mazurke
If you’ve been unfortunate enough not to hear Alt-J’s Mercury Prize nominated debut album An Awesome Wave then stop reading this (don’t really) and go grab yourself a copy; it truly is a remarkable record. About to return to Australian shores toward the end of July this year, I was intrigued to know more about the originating processes to which this album was made as well as the bands first thoughts on Australia. Vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman took some time out to answer a few questions…
Like most fans of the album An Awesome Wave, I can’t help myself in asking if we can expect a new record anytime soon; the band have been touring your debut record for a good while now with constant additions to the tour happening frequently. Is there even time to think about recording?
Fitting in new time to record is tough but also is our primary focus for this year. We have patches off that we now split – time out and away from the band/new recordings. We treat tracks like good parents looking after their children; we spend equal amounts of time and effort on ideas so the process can take a while but so far that patience delivers a constant level of quality and it’s this attitude we are taking into writing anything and everything new.
When writing music, is it the case of lyrics first then music or vice versa? You use technology as an incorporative source in creating your sound; have you ever heard an imposing beat, sound or perhaps even lyric and wanted to interweave that into your own work? Does the use of technology albeit computer or loop pedals help you in this regard?
Writing is never set in stone for us depending on the songs; lyrics come first but in other cases riffs influenced the words I use when singing. We are open to anything during the creative process. We’re not interested in how we reach a sound or what format it is, if an instrument/sound/beat/loop/sample etc triggers an interesting and exciting response from the band then we are moving forward in good direction.
All thirteen tracks are multi –layered masterpieces that embellish all aspects of the term ‘indie rock’ and yet I’ve rarely heard indie attain such consistent clean quality drum beats (without the constant use of fills) almost like you’re a hip hop syncopation. I’m intrigued to know who each member’s main influences are as there are so many elements to each song ; is it the case of four different styles combining together to create your own unique sound? I’m particularly interested in the track Taro as it seems to have sort of a raga/sitar styled feel on the guitar.
That is exactly right. We all have come from different backgrounds and over time through growing up, picked up different musical styles that we enjoyed listening and playing too before we all met at University. Thom was a grunge metal drummer from the age of 12 through to 22, Gus is classically trained in many instruments and also spent a large part of his youth as a chorister, Gwil’s from Cornwall and had no friends and found a guitar in a skip that he played when skiving school and hiding from his family (who are lovely) and I listened to my dad play the guitar in the kitchen from day naught to now.
Alt-J have been branded with the label ‘geek rock’ which I didn’t even know was a thing until now; do you feel it’s because of how you created your music or literally because you all went to University and completed your degree? In saying that, though your study choices beg to differ; had any of the band dreamt of being musicians and playing live to thousands of people worldwide?
I think it was a dream as it is for many who may not even play an instrument. We’re not geeks. I feel the definition of geek is someone who knows a lot about one subject and then bores people at parties by only really talking about one subject. I’m a jock.
Lyrically speaking, each song could be a new chapter in a different book every time. Who or what was influential toward the song writing process at the time of making An Awesome Wave? Is it always the case of what you know, rather than predominant imagination?
It’s always a mix of everything; I can never turn off inspiration, though I have major blank spells, it’s always handy having a book or something to jot down ideas. Recording words is easy…remembering where or why you discovered this thought is always so hard to recall. Often I mistake ideas from things I have overheard or words I have misheard, or phrases misunderstood; sometimes I take things quite literally and steal, other times they are my own thoughts.
In regard to both personal and industrial influences, who has actuated the band to become what it is today?
Team ∆ which is the band and maybe 100 other people? That’s a guess but I reckon it’s accurate.
You’re about to return to Australia after taking part in the latest St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival which I was lucky enough to witness in little old Adelaide. What are your thoughts on Australia and the reception of Australian fans to Alt-J?
Intoxicating, welcoming in frantic howls and lovely claps, we love Australia. We went out in Adelaide that night and ended walking (at least 3 miles) with a massive group of people to a karaoke bar where we were forced to sing Roxanne in front of as many iPhones as drunken Australians. That was fun. It’s always fun down under.
The band was previously called ‘Daljit Dhaliwal’ (the amount of times I had to check that spelling is uncanny!) which is the name of a British newsreader and ‘Breezeblocks’ was the part name of a BBC radio programme; all signs pointing to the obvious statement that you’re fans of the news. Yet, why the specific change of name from the original and why chose the title ‘Breezeblocks’ for that particular track?
We could never spell our first band name plus people had a problem remembering us. The word Breezeblocks just jumped out at me. Naming a song can be the last job but sometimes great song titles can influence the writing of a song. The Gospel of John Hurt – I’ve been writing to that title for maybe 2 years now.