Even in a modern music scene where getting noticed is a key early aim, Alt-J comfortably stand out. The Leeds-based four-piece spent years honing their craft without ever leaving their bedrooms, and come across like they make music for nobody but themselves: they mix guitars, yelps, and self-confessed hallucinogenic influences in a gloriously odd amalgamation. Despite that, fame has grabbed them, pushed them quickly to the status of one of 2012′s most hyped bands, yet failed to change the ‘cowboy’ view they hold of themselves. Their curiously Mac-specific command (Alt-J doesn’t produce their Delta symbol on a PC), preference for keeping their faces out of photographs and near impossible to Google name all add to the intrigue.
Here’s keyboard player Gus’ own angle on a year that’s taken off in a big way…
A lot of people over in Ireland might not have heard of you to date, so for them, who are you and what do you do?
We’re ? [alt-J], a band formed in Leeds, while we were at university. We do music mostly.
Early on in your career you described yourselves in interview as ‘cowboys’ rather than musicians. How has your songwriting process developed since?
I think we’re still proud cowboys, when it comes to songwriting. Certainly, the songs get some polish when they’re recorded in the studio, but in terms of writing it’s very important to us to let the songs develop naturally. We’d prefer to end up with something sprawling but interesting, like ‘Fitzpleasure’, rather than stick to rules and conventions…
Your rise as a band started right after your guitarist graduated from an Arts Degree. Was there another plan in place should things not have gone so well?
Not really! We didn’t know how things were going to go once we’d al finished university, but we’d agreed to give it a year to see if things would happen. We worked hard and… they did.
We’ve heard that before you really came out and started performing proper gigs, you spent over two years working on your sound in private. Was that important in producing the unusual style you have now?
Definitely. Our ‘manifesto’ (if we have one) when it comes to making music is that if we create something we all like the sound of, then it’s suitable for ?. If we’d got straight onto the gigging circuit, we might have just started copying other bands to fit in, which would not have been good. All we were really interested in, in those early days, was keeping our heads down and making music together.
The world seems to have trouble explaining what kind of music you produce. How would you like to be described?
We’re really not worried about descriptions of our music. People should just listen to it with an open mind – that’s all that’s important. Comparisons to bands and artists we love are very flattering though, when they come up.
Your non-live photographs have become somewhat notorious, with your faces hidden from the camera. Is there a subliminal message to be found in that?
Not really! Basically, when we first started getting press attention, we didn’t want to be judged on our appearances. And we find conventional band photos a bit boring… It wasn’t meant to be something controversial though.
The combination of the name (you’re Mac-specific) and seemingly rejecting publicity through the photos can seem like you don’t want to be accessible. How do you feel about the band as a commodity?
In terms of ‘branding’, we actually find the name quite good! It’s not easy to google, but has lots of visual potential. Naturally, we never thought of the band as a commodity when we started it, but as soon as you sign you’re part of the music business, and do become something to be branded and sold. We try not to think too much about it, and focus on the music.
We’ve heard you write a lot of your music in the bathroom. How does that affect the sound you end up with?
It has a nice, reverby acoustic, so the possibilities of the voice can be fully appreciated.
What’s been the best moment of life in Alt-J so far?
Probably the recent gigs we’ve done, such as The Great Escape, in Brighton, where we have actual, real fans singing along! That’s an amazing feeling.
How do you go about converting your sound into a live setting? Have you found that venue is particularly important in creating the right atmosphere for your style?
It’s a lot of hard work, and has necessitated the purchase of quite a few extra bits and pieces of equipment (mostly percussive) and guitar pedals. However we stick to our rule that everything you hear at one of our gigs should be being created, live, on stage. No backing tracks here!
The debut album is just around the corner. Does it hold any surprised for those who’ve been following you?
For people who’ve been there since the start in Leeds, there are a couple of old songs which disappeared for a while, but which were resurrected in the studio…
What would be your dream future as a band, and how are you going to get there?
We’d love to do music for films. Hopefully you just have to be a good band to get there… we’ll see!