Leeds three-piece indie band Alt-J have achieved the unachievable – commercial success in the form of a Mercury Music Prize and critical acclaim, and anonymity. Frontman Joe Newman talks about staying under the radar.
Was it a struggle to follow An Awesome Wave and have you achieved what you wanted to with This Is All Yours?
We were immensely proud of our debut and after its reception we became energized to give people more. We had plenty of ideas to work with and through working on these ideas we picked up new ones. It slowly became a body of work that encompassed both old and new that worked well together, and this excited us further. I believe we delivered a second album that is both familiar but fresh.
Do you feel like you have managed to achieve success without fame?
We’re rarely recognized. After playing a gig and going outside to breathe through a cigarette it’s different – fans wait outside and at that moment you feel your fame but that’s nice for both parties I think. We have a good balance with fame and often we slip under the radar and we wouldn’t change that.
Lyrically you are abstract, is that a symptom of shying away from the public eye and not wanting to bare your soul?
Vagueness is a good way to appeal to a larger portion of listeners, fans can then adapt and personalise our meanings to suit a different kind of meaning. Sometimes people approach us desperately grateful telling us our songs have helped them through something; it’s amazing that through our music we can touch people and guide them around and over obstacles. I often talk about personal things but code it through a more abstract language, it helps me vent without being too openly grizzly and revealing my more sensitive corners.
We are really bland, so, if anything saying it over and over again only makes us stronger and even blander
Why did you decide to sample Miley Cyrus on Hunger Of The Pine? Are you fans?
It was a beautifully sung line with an angry yet empowering punch and it gripped me. I was keen to incorporate it into Hunger Of The Pine and it worked perfectly. It was also the first overt form of sampling that we had involved within a track, it was something I had always seen ourselves doing but our first album was too full to the brim. We only ever use anything if it works and for the first album putting samples in would have been because we could and not because we should.
Has the band recovered from the departure of Gwil Sainsbury and how has it altered your sound?
We have and our recovery was surprisingly quick. We became tighter and bonded closer as friends after Gwil’s departure and this was mirrored creatively too. We reassessed our roles – my writing had become stronger on tour as too had Gus’ skills, and Thom’s remixing had matured into some tough stuff. When we got together to write after toasting the recently departed we got to work with ease, kept our heads down and stayed out of trouble while gelling rather quickly.
You described winning the Mercury Music Prize as traumatic – why was that?
Going through the process of competition was stressful – for everyone I imagine – after the nomination buzz wears off we all want to win. And though wanting to win is a nice stress to have, you do turn into a bag of nerves on the night leaving the calmest pacing fastest. The announcement of your band’s name is a relief and the realisation you’ve won is euphoric. After winning it dawned on us that this was the beginning of becoming bigger – the Mercury Prize is an internationally recognised and respected award, so if you’re nominated more people pay attention to your album. Winning sends you somewhere else entirely and that attention can be daunting. But it’s our greatest achievement and was my ultimate dream and so it’s left a mark, a scar if you will but it’s a great traumatic memory.
What do you say to the critics who have labeled alt-J a bland band?
It makes sense that we have critics and critics often like to huddle together and agree on something they don’t like. Bland seems to be the keyword in our enemies’ arsenal. We are really bland, though, so, if anything, saying it over and over again makes us stronger and even blander.
Left Hand Free was apparently written ironically in reaction to your US label’s request for a big single. Is there any resentment about its presence on the album?
This little bit of trivia actually isn’t true at all. We had written this song and liked it enough to want it on the album. Originally we thought of having it as the first track on the album! This ‘pleasing the American label’ is major crossed wires. We love the song and they liked it and wanted it as a lead single and we were like ‘ahhhh no – Hunger Of The Pine aaaand then Left Hand Free’.