Gwil Sainsbury of alt-J pauses thoughtfully to consider each question; we’ve only got twenty minutes for this interview, but nothing is going to prevent Sainsbury from giving due prudence to every topic.
At first, it strikes me simply as affable English charm. Yet with every pensive pause, Sainsbury defines the constant struggle of alt-J – how to proceed carefully in an industry that demands more of the band than they’re comfortable revealing.
We’re discussing the rapid ascent that the Cambridge via Leeds foursome has experienced since the May 2012 release of their debut full-length, An Awesome Wave. When you consider the exposure that winning the Mercury Prize brought, coupled with appearances on American late-night TV programs and the ridiculous amount of touring they’ve done (they’ll be touching down in Australia for the third time in nine months), how alt-J plans on managing and maintaining their success for the long-term is certainly a quandary worth pausing to consider.
“That’s a constant concern for us, how to manage what we’re doing in this industry,” says Sainsbury, on the phone from a San Diego tour stop. “I suppose we forget sometimes what we’re doing; we’re running a business, but you’re trying not to do it with spread sheets or whatever. To me, that’s quite strange.”
“Strange” is an accurate description for the short career of alt-J. After forming at Leeds University and arranging their demos in student dorm rooms, they spent two years middling under the radar before releasing a 7” single with Loud and Quiet in October 2011 (that’s now valued at around AUD$200) before abruptly arriving as critical darlings with An Awesome Wave. With their fearless dabbling in genres and reluctance to buy into the industry machine, they’re being called the second coming of Radiohead. “I didn’t get into a band to become a well-known face or a well-known personality,” counters Sainsbury.
Critics and bloggers alike have struggled to label and compartmentalise alt-J. Often this leads to an aura of mystery surrounding an act, where one must actually examine their sound instead of simply being told.
The members of alt-J, in direct contrast to the textured and complex music they release, are frank and direct in interviews and public appearances. Often appearing as well put-together as, well, your typical university student, the band has shunned the opportunity to further their rock-star mystique.
You’d be hard-pressed to find alt-J, rounded out by guitarist/vocalist Joe Newman, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton and drummer Thom Green, even in a pair of fashionable skinny jeans. They’re more drab sweater and khakis, if anything. This is a band defined by their reluctance to be embraced and subsequently swallowed whole by the music media and industry.
“I personally have issues with glamour,” says Sainsbury. It’s a notion that has deep roots in the band’s initially low expectations for An Awesome Wave.
“I guess I was uncomfortable, in a very naïve way,” Sainsbury continues, “because we put out the record and didn’t expect much of a response to it. It’s still quite a strange thing to be asked about our music and to be stopped on the street by our fans, but it’s certainly important to interact with them.
“It’s important to make sure that your fans know you’re not in any way elevated above them. People have this impression of you as a person just through hearing your record and that can be very weird.”
As the band attempts to find a balance between the life they led as shy, artistically-inclined students at Leeds University (Unger-Hamilton studied English Literature while the other three studied Fine Arts) and their new life as increasingly recognisable celebrities, another pertinent demand is creeping up. And it’s one that may very well have the most distinguishable impact on their future in the music business.
It’s only been a year since the release of An Awesome Wave, but the band is already being pressured to quickly release a follow-up. “I wouldn’t be tempted to go in and bang out another record,” he says. The dreaded sophomore slump can make or break young bands like alt-J, and Sainsbury resists the very notion that they’ll be held hostage by standards and methods they see as antiquated.
“To put it into context, it took us four years to record An Awesome Wave, even though we were all studying at university. So to just record a quick follow-up, that’s not really how we work.”
They might have the careful and deliberate approach to recording of a band twice their age, but touring is a different matter. Their touring schedule in the last year has been relentless, with appearances at clubs, theatres and large festivals.
You might expect a young band touring the world to adopt a carefree, ‘live fast and die young’ mentality. Sainsbury notes, in his most salacious comment of the interview, that, “we drank and smoked a lot more on our past tours – we’re trying to watch out for that,” adding that, “…exercise is really essential as well.”
Exercise? This is what a man in his mid-20s has to say about touring the world? It’s all part of their nose-to-the-grindstone attitude and their belief that the work itself will provide more redemption than any glamour might.
“The response that the record has had means that it is our duty to play for our fans around the world that perhaps haven’t had the chance to see us play yet. From my point of view, that’s what it’s about. We didn’t expect this kind of response,” says Sainsbury.
“It is very hard when you go out on tour to maintain a normal life, a normal schedule and try and be a normal person. We’ve had some incredible times, though it did take us a very long time to get comfortable playing live. We spent a lot of time before this playing and writing alone.”
So don’t expect alt-J to be playing rock stars when they’re out on tour, but just because they’re not throwing themselves into a cesspit of excess, that doesn’t mean they’re not having fun.
“It’s important to maintain a playful attitude when making music,” Sainsbury says. “All we can ask from the songs and from each other is to have an open mind.”
BY JOSHUA KLOKE
alt-J play Hordern Pavilion with Snakadaktal and City Calm Down on Wednesday July 31. Please note this show is sold out.