Alt–J are riding an awesome wave, much like the one they’ve created on their near-perfect debut record. In taking out the Mercury Prize for best album in 2012 (Britain’s most illustrious music prize), the British four-piece has convinced fans and critics alike that there’s still room for a collection of pop songs that above all, bring happiness to the fore.
Unmoved by their success, Alt-J have toured their debut album generously, seldom taking the time to get carried away or caught up in thoughts of a sophomore album. It’s been more than five years since the band’s founding members, Joe Newman and Gwil Sainsbury, met at Leeds University, and as Newman tells Broadsheet, life wasn’t always so peachy.
Nicholas Acquroff: How many countries do you think you've visited over the past year? And how does that compare to the year before?
Joe Newman: Before the band’s success, I could probably count all the places I had visited outside Britain on one hand. Now I could list off a great many countries that Alt-J have visited and most probably forget a handful.
NA: The thing that captures me most about An Awesome Wave is the arrangements and the use of silence, moving from huge walls of sound to silence in the space of just a few seconds.
JN: The dynamics of the band was a result of our clash of chemistry. Our producer Charlie Andrew picked up on this and encouraged us to explore. We have several filtering processes: me on my own; working on the songs with the band; and then working on the track with Charlie. Within the ultimate stage we normally discover we have too much material, and so it’s an exercise in stripping down to reveal the song in its best shape. Production is normally the best time to adjust and play with arrangements but not drastically so. In terms of structure, we stick to what’s been written originally, though every song has a different story of development.
NA: Do you write songs on one instrument and then add other instruments, or do you construct them with a wider sound in mind?
JN: Songs are traditionally written on an acoustic guitar in a bedroom, hotel room or toilet.
NA: Was there ever a time when you worried about your future in music? And was it hard to make a crust?
JN: I remember a time when I would survive on my flatmate’s bread, a toaster and marmite – checking pockets you had already checked the day before for change was also a highlight. I'm always worried about the future. Once we were concerned about surviving as a band and breaking through; now sinking away from relevance occupies my thoughts. But we love what we are doing and so long as we are still excited by our output, we at least know we are going in the right direction.
NA: Does it get harder to write music when you have to worry about interviews and world tours? When are you guys going to have some time to yourselves again, creating album number two?
JN: We often respond to very flattering questions and sometimes you find yourself talking the talk, and even though the proof of our success is in our debut, I sometimes feel that proving the talk is in the second album. We are touring up until October, although we have been writing slowly but surely.
NA: Who does Alt-J have to thank the most?
JN: I had a friend who, at the time, I was dating. She was a very important audience for me. I trusted her judgment. Our intimacy at the time and her reaction to the songs was one of my best moments and biggest encouragements to keep going. Today I thank her but there are so many who have helped.