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British ‘it band’ Alt-J rides a wave of critical success

Art for awe’s sake

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As with their U.K. peers Wild Beasts and Everything Everything, there really is no modern frame of reference that can be applied to the music of the idiosyncratic, unusually inventive Leeds quartet Alt-J.

The band's indie debut, An Awesome Wave — which won last year's prestigious Mercury Prize and was named Album of the Year by BBC Radio 6 — is an intricate, artfully conceived anomaly, with lyrics inspired by esoteric artists like Maurice Sendak, Jean Reno and Hubert Selby. The music is no less eclectic, from the pounding, staccato "Breezeblocks" to the lullaby lilt of "Matilda," all held together by singer Joe Newman's soaring, often gremlin-squeaky vocals.

"Whether we have a sound, or a variety of different sounds, we're not really sure," says Alt-J keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, who met his future bandmates at Leeds University back in 2007. "We just play music that interests us, music that we find interesting and stimulating. So I think our sound probably comes from the fact that we all have very different musical backgrounds, but that's as far as I can analyze it, really."

Unger-Hamilton himself is obsessed with traditional English folk and its current U.K. revivalists. "I really love Pentangle and the Watersons, and contemporary stuff like Laura Marling," he says. "I've met Laura once — me and Joe met her at a party several months ago — and we were so starstruck it was embarrassing."

But it's Newman's arcane wordplay that pushes Alt-J beyond any patented Dylan-isms. "That's what I find really interesting about Joe's lyrics. They're not just nonsense about girlfriends and stuff. It's all existing on a much higher plane."

Before hitting on their quirky moniker, which references the keyboard command that produces the Greek letter Delta, the young art students began recording demos on their dorm room computers under the name Films. Then the four of them, along with guitarist Gwil Sainsbury's girlfriend, all moved into a cramped two-bedroom house in Cambridge, an experience Unger-Hamilton describes as "pretty intense."

"It was very good, creatively — we got a lot done — but certain other people's bad habits rubbed other people the wrong way. Like drinking orange juice from the carton, that was the thin end of the wedge, I would say."

At the very least, it helped band members learn self-sufficiency, always a valuable skill in a world of starving artists. "We cooked cheap but nourishing meals, lots of pasta and tomato sauce and sausages," says Unger-Hamilton. "It kept us going and fueled the creation of our album." Weekend treats were Heinz beans on toast — "IF one of us got a check from our parents. Otherwise it was strictly the market no-name brand."

Most of the recording was done in a small windowed den in the back, which also served as the official Alt-J rehearsal space. To check their e-mails, they would pay visits to the nearest Wi-Fi-enabled library.

But thanks to critical acclaim, international airplay, and slots on the upcoming Bonnaroo and Reading festivals, life is looking up for Alt-J.

"I've got a flat with my girlfriend now," says Unger-Hamilton, thankful for the breathing room. "We're very welcoming — we'll have the guys over for dinner whenever they want to stop by. And we're hoping to maybe even start eating meat again one of these days."

scene@csindy.com

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