Alt-J makes a name for itself with a sound all its own

Alt-J is (from left) Gwil Sainsbury, Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Green. The band plays a pair of sold-out shows at the Paradise this weekend.
Jory Cordy
Alt-J is (from left) Gwil Sainsbury, Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Green. The band plays a pair of sold-out shows at the Paradise this weekend.

While students at Leeds University, the members of Alt-J built a small but devoted following for their fractured indie-pop.

“It was hard to tell if they liked the music or were just supporting us as friends,” recalls Alt-J keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton when reached recently at a Paris concert stop.

Those early incarnations of the band, which flew under different monikers at the time, eventually saw a dip in attendance at their club gigs, but Unger-Hamilton says the band didn’t take it personally.


“I think people just said, ‘OK, we’ve seen them.’ But the four of us [in the band] were pretty sure about what we were doing,” he says. “We weren’t headlining the local festivals like some of the other bands rising up the ranks. But we had our sights set on something else.”

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And that something else has come together quite nicely. Alt-J’s debut album, “An Awesome Wave,” won the 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Prize, an annual juried award for best UK album. Alt-J also received three nominations in the recent Brit Awards, an Anglo Grammy equivalent. The band’s US tour begins this weekend in Boston with a pair of sold-out shows at the Paradise, and much of the rest of the trek is likewise sold out. In response to that, Alt-J this week announced additional US concerts, including a Sept. 13 date at the 5,000-seat Bank of America Pavilion, which is four days shy of the first anniversary of the band’s Boston debut when it played at Great Scott — capacity about 240.

Unger-Hamilton says that Alt-J has been so busy touring that it has escaped much of the hype of recent months.

“It’s been a good way to stay grounded,” he says.

And even though the keyboard player fully expects Alt-J to be on the road for much of this year, he isn’t worried about burning out on the songs from “An Awesome Wave.”


“We created these songs in the studio and we’re still learning really how to play them on stage,” he says. “Because it’s our first album, we’re trying to do it as faithfully as we can.”

“An Awesome Wave” came out first in England in May and then in the US in September. Unger-Hamilton, singer Joe Newman, guitarist Gwil Sainsbury, and drummer Thom Green started working on the material in 2009, spending more than a year crafting the first few “Wave” songs with producer Charlie Andrew.

Besides needing to fit the music-making into their schedules as students, the members of Alt-J were clearly after an unconventional sound, something that needed to be worked out. Alt-J (a name derived from the key strokes on a Mac to create the delta, or symbol for change) draws from many musical camps, but arranges the pieces into beguiling patterns all its own. Just as the instrumentation conjures and combines pastoral, pop, and progressive passages, Newman’s rubbery vocals wrap around all the different song contours, from the trip-folk of “Dissolve Me” to the tech-impressionism of “Tessellate.” This record has a little of everything, except repetition.

“It’s accessible but experimental,” says Dan Chertoff, the A&R scout at Canvasback Music, the record label that released “An Awesome Wave” in the US.

Chertoff recounts how a friend in Australia sent him a soundclip of the song “Fitzpleasure,” one of Alt-J’s upbeat songs that juxtaposes breezy and bombastic tones.


“When they drop that big beat it’s so powerful, I just stopped what I was doing,” Chertoff recalls. “It’s rare that I hear something that stops me in my tracks.”

Unger-Hamilton says Alt-J wasn’t going out of its way to sound different, and was fortunate in having a vacuum to fill.

“When we all met in 2007, the British indie scene collapsed. There was that boom from 2004 to 2007 with the Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys. Then any bunch of scruffy lads with guitars could get a record deal. Then there were a lot of [bad] bands,” he says, noting, “We’re not singing about going to get a pint.”

Underscoring Alt-J’s cinematic sound, British filmmaker Toby Jones asked the band to provide the music for his upcoming movie, “Leave to Remain.”

“He just gave us three words to think about and let us create freely. One of the words was ‘arrival.’ I forget the other two,” Unger-Hamilton says.

Beyond that, Alt-J won’t be working on new songs until it’s off of the road.

“We need space and time to create, and the two things you don’t have on tour are space and time,” he says.

What you do have on tour is a lot of friends, including those initial supporters who politely attended a couple of early outings then bowed out. Unger-Hamilton says, “Now they’re bugging us to get on the guest list.”

Scott McLennan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.