Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'Living The Twisted Dream' - Meeting Alt J, Leeds Cockpit, 28/10/2012


Every so often on this blog I'm lucky enough to get an interview with a band so in demand that I can't help but think to myself, look Jenessa, you're almost a proper journalist! Sandwiched for 15 minutes in a schedule that incorporated three live radio interviews and an interview with some french media that had flown in specially, all before dinnertime, it's clear that Alt J are on the rise, and I'm doing well to grab them before they go huge. Joint favourites to win this weeks Mercury Music Prize, their tight take on trip hop tinged indie has seen them travel across the world, play endless festivals and wedge themselves tightly in many best of the year lists with their accomplished debut, An Awesome Wave.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't approach this interview with caution. I'd heard from various sources that they were a fairly serious outfit who didn't take kindly to talking about anything other than their music. Turning up outside their dressing room to hear them listening to their own record didn't do much to shift this preconception of a band so meticulous and immersed in their music that they'd listen to it before they played it. Luckily, this intimidation dissolved as they wandered in and out of the shower between talking to me, humanising them and making me realise actually, they're a pretty cool bunch of boys who were remarkably open and content to tell me whatever I wanted to know...

Alt J, Interview


SIS:We’re back in leeds, your adopted hometown. How does it feel to be back? Are you looking forward to tonights show?
Gwill Sainsbury (GS): It’s pretty cool to be back, we’re very excited. I’m not sure how mad the gig is going to be. We haven’t played leeds since live at leeds, because leeds festival doesn’t really count when its out in the countryside. We haven’t been back for what seems like ages.

SIS: You met at Leeds Uni, how did you find life as southerners in a northern town?
Thom Green (TG): They’re all southerners apart from me, I’m from Harrogate.
GS: We really enjoyed it, we loved being at Leeds university. I miss how cheap it is, it’s amazing. I’m from Cornwall so it was completely different being this far away from home. I miss northern life, I live in Cambridge now so it’s pretty boring, it’s not the same. It’s just as cold down there as it is up here at the moment, so what’s the difference (laughs)

SIS: You studied Fine Art and English Lit between the four of you, how has this influenced the kind of music you make?
GS: Well firstly, if it wasn’t for that course and the kind of time you have doing an art course, we wouldn’t have had the time to practice or write songs. And secondly, doing an art course means you get really critical about everything, and I think that’s helped us. If you’re working with other people in the university environment, there’s a lot more people you can convince to get involved with things like music videos.
TG: We had the time and the space and the right mindset to be a band – we didn’t intend to be a band initially and I think that’s why it works. It was just something we wanted to do; we didn’t have a goal to be famous. We just make the music we like and everything else is a bonus.

SIS: I wanted to ask actually why you avoided all the press and interviews at the start of your career, was this an intentional thing to make sure you just focused on the music?
GS: It was more that we were pretty embarrassed. On a local level, when we were playing in Leeds, they’re be photographers come to the gigs and they’d be like ‘oh, let’s take you outside and get this picture of you looking really cool leaning against this brick wall,’ and we just didn’t want to do that stuff. It was more of a control thing, just not wanting to do what everyone said we had to. Especially with regional photographers. Also, we’re just kind of embarrassed about our faces, so… (Laughs)

SIS: You’ve been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and are second favourites to win, are you feeling the pressure?
GS: I don’t know if channel 4 will have their cameras trained on the favourites table, I’d imagine they’re rather be filming Jessie Ware.
TG: Or Plan B, Plan B will win (sighs)

SIS: You look like you don’t want Plan B to win…
TG (laughs) – oh I dunno, he’s a really nice bloke, at least it would go to a nice person. He was at the Q awards and he was lovely to everyone, really humble.
GS: I always get Plan B muddled up with Professor Green, but Professor Green is a bit more of a lad I think (laughs)

SIS: So who would you actually like to win?
GS: I’ve been saying Django Django all this time, but they won the award we were nominated for at the Q awards so now I’m a little bit like, can we have one? (laughs) There’s The Maccabees as well, I think they’ve got a good chance. And Sam Lee, he’s a curveball but I hear he’s pretty good.

SIS: Do you have any plans for the prize money if you were to win?
GS: no one knows this, I’m not even sure if we’re meant to say… (drops voice) but you have to pay to go to the Mercury Music Prize, it’s like 450 quid each. So if you want to take a full team, your band and your record label and your PR guys, you can’t really afford it.
SIS: So you basically have to pay to turn up….
TG: Yeah, I can’t have my family there on the day, because I can’t afford it.
GS: It’s all over pretty quick, by about ten o clock, so we’ve booked out a pub round the corner and are going to have a party, where we can have people there to watch it on TV and we’ll go there after the ceremony.

SIS: An Awesome Wave has been a massive success, now it’s been out a while is there anything you’d change about it?
GS: There’s always things with the mix that could be better. I’m a perfectionist, I’m always going to think ‘god I wish that snare had been louder there’ or ‘the drums should have been quieter’, but I think that’s pretty normal. That’s kind of the fun of playing it love though – it comes alive and you get to play around with bits, you can change the whole dynamic of how a song sounds.

SIS: The origami artwork as well was quite something, do you thing aesthetic aspects like that will help slow the download culture that is so prevalent nowadays from taking over?
GS: I think if you put out a physical record, not just on iTunes, you kind of need to put a bit more effort in to make it a tangible thing. We actually lost money producing those origami ones, but it was a nice thing to do, and they had a quite an impact when the album came out next to all the normal CDs. I’m quite proud that we managed to convince a label to do for us, on our first record where no one had really heard of us.

SIS: It’s kind of a nice reward for all the fans who’ve been waiting for the record for so long…
TG: That’s what we wanted; we wanted it to be special.
GS: Also, with those jewel cases, the plastic bit in the middle is so crap, bits just snap off so what we’ve got is a far better piece of design!

SIS: How do you feel about downloading in general?
TG: I think it’s brilliant.
GS: I like it. I think there are alternatives, like Spotify. When you’re a student especially, and you have no money for music. The way the music industry is structured… I could probably get in trouble for saying this as well… but if you downloaded our album, but then came to our gig and bought a t shirt, we’d make more money. I don’t know if I can encourage it (downloading), but it’s not always the problem people think it is.
TG: Like soundcloud, you can give away free downloads via that, which is amazing for new bands and sub genres where there isn’t a huge fanbase. There are so many shows and tours and festival opportunities that come off the back of giving away free music.
GS; You get the other problem though, with bands like Das Racist, giving away two mixtapes for free, now they have an album they want to put out they’ve found out that they’ve kind of given away all their best songs already.
TG: Exactly, you can’t give away too much.
GS: What we did was stream our whole album on soundcloud, so that people could hear it but not download it. That seemed to work pretty well.

SIS: There also seems to be a trend emerging nowadays where bands are helping finance their careers by affiliating their music to adverts and commercials. Is this something you’re comfortable with?
GS: (laughs) We’re killing it! Again, it isn’t the 60s. I know that sort of thing used to be considered selling out. It’s sad to have to think about money in terms of power, but if you can make enough money to essentially fund your second album, it means your label will be so much keener to give in to your demands. That’s where there is the difference between making music and having a business, they have to work together but at the same time, there is always a conflict between the two. If you can pay off your debt to the label, which is essentially what a record deal is and get past that, it gives you more leverage. We haven’t really done many adverts, its more TV series’, which is something actually quite cool.
TG: There is stuff we haven’t approved…
GS: You can’t approve anything in the UK, you get paid PRS (Performance Right Society) money but you can’t negotiate the actual fee. So for instance, the BBC can put our music over anything they like. In America, you negotiate each sync individaully, so it’s a completely different world, but here you can do nothing. Unless someone like the BNP starting using our songs, then we might have some cause to complain (laughs)

SIS: you also mentioned in an interview that  you’d be writing some music for films and making short films yourselves, have you made any progress with that yet?
GS:I don’t know if we can talk about this either…
TG: There’s definitely something that we’re working on.
GS: Go on, I’ll tell you.  We’re doing stuff with the Toronto film festival basically.
TG: It’s called The Silver Lining Playbook (sic) , its directed by David O’Russell and its an unbelievable opportunity, it’s got Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence in it. We saw a screening for it and agreed to put a track in there, we met them in L.A. It’s amazing, we loved the film.
GS: It’s an unreleased track as well, so hopefully it’ll keep people going until we can bring them the new record

SIS: Have you started plans for a follow up record yet?
GS: In our minds, yes. But we just haven’t had the time record anything yet. Between now and our next tour here in may we’re going to Europe and America twice. We’re living the twisted dream!

Review
 When Stealing Sheep come on stage at Leeds Cockpit I feel a little like I've inadvertently stumbled into a Cult. Three intimidatingly pretty girls with long swishing hair and intent expressions, they entice the crowd into silence with their rhythmic, almost ritualistic drums and choir like vocal arrangement. In a whir of glittery hot pants and coy smiles they deliver the likes of 'Gold' and 'Genevieve' from their debut album Into The Diamond Sun, sounding a million miles away from their hometown of Liverpool. Much like Alt J, they are suddenly humanised when they speak for the first time, thanking the crowd for watching in hushed tones, clearly shy but hopelessly in love with touring life. And then they strike their cowbells once more, and the spell falls into place again. 

Alt J go for the same dark, provocative magic. They arch into a slow, sexy Tesselate via Interlude 1, which comes across live more like The Mighty Boosh doing the Four Way Crimp. As the drums crash on off beats, the Wild Beasts comparison that always perplexed me about Alt J finally begins to make sense: it's the same cinematic guitarwork with sultry undertones. Unlike Hayden Thorpe, lead singer Joe Newman remains stock still throughout, a tower of resilience against Gus Unger Hamilton's cascading keyboards on Something Good and Fitzpleasure.

As if to illustrate my point, the highlight of the show sees Alt J bringing out their cover mashup of Dre Dres 'Still Dre' and Kylie Minogue's 'Slow' a combination that really, really should work, but definitely does (as you can watch below). It prompts one guy stood in front of us to finally move the phone he's been filming the entire gig on to ring what is presumably his girlfriend, bellowing at her 'LISTEN TO THIS LOVE!' in gloriously northern tones. The ceiling drips sweat, to the extent that poor bassist Gwill feels the need to strip down to his long johns, aptly before they start 'Breeze'blocks. 'It's good to be home remarks Joe, visibly perishing under the lights and heavy crowd. It isn't something he needs to worry about, for I get the impression that Leeds will be more than accepting next time they return to bigger and more air conditioned rooms.

28 comments:

  1. Great piece, J :) So jealous you got to interview them!

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