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Five minutes with alt-J

We caught up with the Mercury Prize-winning nerdrockers who are performing in India

By Sonam Savlani  March 1st, 2015

The British band alt-J isn’t restricted by definitions, they simply make music for themselves – the kind they’d like to listen to. Which might explain why they’re variously described as nerdrockers or a folktronica act. They’ll even surprise you by throwing in a thrumming bassline with soaring vocals.

alt-J started out in 2007, when members Joe Newman (lead vocals, lyrics, guitar), Thom Green (drums) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards, vocals) met at Leeds University. Oddly, they were briefly known as Daljit Dhaliwal – after the British TV presenter – “but it was tough to spell” so they just came to be alt-J.

Their debut album, An Awesome Wave, fetched them the Mercury award, and the second, This Is All Yours, took the number one spot on the UK’s Official Albums Chart immediately after release. Since we’re big, honking fans of their music, we caught up with Green ahead of their shows in India, with Vh1’s Emerge Festival:

You’ve spoken about how you like to make the kind of music you want to listen to. So what’s on your playlist at the moment?

“I’m listening to a producer called Arca, who lives in London. He’s an experimental producer; he makes electronic, hip-hop kind of music. His debut album came out last November, and he’s recently produced Björk’s album, Vulnicura. It’s very, very exciting. I’m kind of obsessed with it at the moment. I’m also listening to Radiohead again. I’ve come back around to it again. I get obsessed, then forget about it, and get obsessed again.

What’s the best – or worst – part of being on tour?

“The best part is playing – it all kind of makes sense when I’m on stage and I’m playing. That’s what I love to do, and that’s the best part definitely. The worst part is being away from home a lot. I quite like routine, so being in a different place every day is quite hard to do. It’s hard to settle sometimes; or sleep in a different bed every day. After the first album we toured quite hard and towards the end of that we were kind of like, well we need to stop now and take some time off.”

Which of your songs has been the toughest to make?

I’m not sure. Maybe Every Other Freckle. We had that for about three years, and could just never pin it down. We had a lot of ideas and it would change, and we would get bored and frustrated with it, and come back to it. To me it was kind of laborious.    

Why do you go with abstract, impersonal lyrics?

“Joe [Newman] writes the lyrics, and I think the way that he likes to tell stories is very interesting. I think he quite likes to use words for the way they sound.  Some lyrics don’t actually have any meaning but they sound good together; the rhythm of the way they’re spoken, or sang, goes with the instrumental… I couldn’t really explain for sure why he uses the words he does, but sometimes it’s quite playful, and he takes time over his word choices.”      

Which of your songs would you like to be remembered by?

“I would say ‘Tessellate’ would be one, ‘Taro’, ‘Hunger Of The Pine’ and ‘Fitzpleasure’. I think I’m very proud of those songs, and they represent us well. They’re also popular songs. And yeah, if those four were going to represent us I’d be happy with that.”

alt-J perform in Delhi on May 21, and Mumbai on May 22. Get your tickets here