In December, on a rainy night in Glasgow, Scotland, clouds of fog billow across a black stage. Four men appear as dark, unmoving silhouettes. They launch into their first song of the night, a four-minute-long instrumental piece. There are no special effects other than the fog swirling around their ankles, and they don’t attempt to engage the audience. It’s all kind of bizarre, kind of odd. But this is Alt-J, and that’s exactly what they are: not performers so much as artists. This is “Intro” from their latest album, an introduction meant to be played first, no matter how peculiar it may seem as an opening song in a large concert hall. So that’s what they do.
By the time I went to that concert, I was an avid fan. I’d given up trying to understand their music and learned to just appreciate it. When I first heard them, a couple years earlier, I was struck by my utter inability to understand the lyrics. I was listening to “Breezeblocks.” What? What is this guy saying? I thought. Maybe he was speaking a different language. Or rapping, or rather, whisper-rapping. As it turns out, he was speaking English (though mumbling might be a better word), the words blurring together with an electronic keyboard in the background.
I’m just going to say it. Alt-J is weird. Their name, for instance, comes from the Mac keyboard shortcut for the delta sign, a character which indicates the concept of change. Stylistically speaking, they’re predominantly indie rock with strong elements of electronic and folk. Their music is at once upbeat and melodic, with searing overtones that cover up an unbearable sadness.
“These are not songs that make for easy radio singles,” their American label (Canvasback Music) warned them during the creation of their second album, “This Is All Yours.” According to an article published by “Under the Radar,” Alt-J responded by writing “Left Hand Free,” which would become one of the most popular songs from that album, in 20 minutes.
The year is 2007, the place, University of Leeds. Three art geeks and their English major friend bond over Radiohead’s “In Rainbows.” A band is born.
Of course, there’s more to it, but that’s the general progression of events. Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals) shows Gwil Sainsbury (guitar/bass) some of his songs, and they begin recording on GarageBand. They bring in some likeminded artists, Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard/vocals) and Thom Greene (drums). Newman met Sainsbury and Green through art class and first met Unger-Hamilton (the lone English major) while they were doing laundry. Still, the pieces fell into place, and they sat down for their first band practice.
They started out making music in student halls, the limitations of which probably contributed to their distinctly different sound. Their songs seemed maybe a little bit under-produced, a little rough around the edges, yet they were held together by scientific precision and a thematic unity that governed their composition. Rolling Stone describes listening to their music from this time as an experience that “featured jarring shifts in direction and tempo, sampled dead poets, and had oblique lyrics that referenced Maurice Sendak, prescription drugs, and ‘Alien.’” It’s hard to describe in words the stylistic oddities of Alt-J, other than to say that the band not only sounds different, but also feels different. I’m trying to find a word other than “different,” but it’s not that they’re worse or better than everything else out there–it’s just that they’re not the same. It’s refreshing.
After a few years of recording in their dorm, they released a four-track demo EP in 2011. In 2012, they released their first album, “An Awesome Wave.” (The name comes from a line in “American Psycho.”) It won the British Mercury Prize for the best album from the UK or Ireland, which in the UK and Ireland is a pretty big deal. And before they knew it, the four university boys were thrust forward into stardom.
One of my favorite hobbies is Googling Alt-J’s song lyrics, exclaiming “Oh! That’s what he’s saying,” and nevertheless feeling like I’ve gained no insight as to what the song is actually about. To really get it, you have to understand the most obscure of references. And even then, the lyrics don’t make a whole lot of sense.
To show you what I mean, this line is from “Every Other Freckle”: “Turn you inside out / and lick you like a crisp packet.” Obviously, there’s some kind of snack-food sexual metaphor going on here. You have to remember that they’re British, so they’re talking about potato chips. Which doesn’t really help in the way of comprehension.
From “Bloodflood, Pt. II”: “Little did I know then / that the Mandela boys soon become Mandela men.” This turns out to be a reference to the local gang from Joe Newman’s hometown of Southampton, England, who used to terrorize him. Okay, fair enough, although there’s no way anyone not from Southampton could know about this without the Internet.
From “Hunger of the Pine”: “Une immense espérance a traversé la terre / une immense espérance a traversé ma peur.” This translates to: “A great hope has crossed the earth, a great hope has crossed my fear.” It’s a quote from a 19th century French poet named Alfred de Musset, whom I had never heard of before. (In my defense, I am pretty undereducated in the realm of French poetry.) Also featured in this song is a vocal sample from none other than Miley Cyrus. That’s exactly what I mean about Alt-J being so different, because no one else could put Miley Cyrus next to French poetry and make it work.
From “Taro”: “Do not spray into eyes / I have sprayed you into my eyes.” The whole song is apparently about Robert Capa, a war photographer who died during the First Indochina War. This lyric is about how close Capa feels to his late wife, Gerda Taro, as he lays dying after stepping on a landmine. At least, that’s what Lyric Genius tells me.
And we can’t forget “Breezeblocks.” To this day, I still do not understand it. When you first listen, all you can make out is the chorus, which seems to be talking about a guy who’s sad that his girlfriend is leaving him. Then, when you Google the lyrics, you uncover the more sinister reality of an abusive relationship, or something even creepier, which is initially hidden by the upbeat vibe of the song. What you thought was “I love you so” morphs into, “I’ll eat you whole.” And then, when you watch the music video, you’re just like: “What?” (It’s really cool, by the way. Just don’t expect to understand it.) I will say that, after living in Britain for three months, the term “breezeblocks” actually means cinder blocks. So that puts the whole song into a bit of perspective.
Okay, you get the point. The point being, there’s almost no use in close analysis of Alt-J’s music, because unless you possess encyclopedic knowledge of arcane English lit and/or feel like Googling every other lyric, it’s basically impossible. Newman’s own description of his writing process is as poetic and bizarre as many of his lyrics, as explained to the “Daily Telegraph”: “I can read a book, and find the most moving part is just a sentence. It’s like looking at a masterpiece through a straw, and then finding a tiny composition within the whole that you like more than the picture itself. That’s how I feel with music.” He recognizes the difficulty his fans have in understanding his work, adding: “Some people think my lyrics are gibberish, but that doesn’t bother me.”
Alt-J’s success is a classic underdog story about proving wrong the disbelievers, the wizened skeptics who thought they knew better than to put faith in an art-student band formed out of college. However, for Alt-J, it was by no means a smooth ride to the top. Early in their career, a harsh review from “Pitchfork” threatened to bring a halt to their momentum. “Pitchfork” is highly influential in the indie music world, so when they called “An Awesome Wave” “overstuffed and messy,” and Newman’s singing “halfway between Macy Gray and a goose gibbering,” it was, needless to say, not good for their prospects.
And then there was the departure of Sainsbury in late 2012, just after the band had begun to enjoy widespread popularity. It became clear during their first international tour to the States that Sainsbury didn’t like the touring lifestyle. Other members describe him as becoming reclusive: He stopped giving interviews and started spending most of his time in his room. When he eventually announced he was leaving the band, the rest of the members were panicked and angry that he would quit so soon after they had made it big. Now, they can recognize that it was a good thing that he left. His decision reminded them that despite their fame, they remain in control of both themselves and their music. This allowed them to quickly overcome the setback and go on to create “This Is All Yours,” which has been largely successful.
Alt-J is best described as offbeat, both music-wise and personality-wise. They’re very laid-back, easygoing guys who’d much rather prefer to get high and watch Netflix than go out. They Tweet selfies from their fans’ phones. They’re the sort of people who will have their manager come onstage in the middle of a performance to bring Gus a glass of red wine, and Gus will then drain the glass while doing a keyboard piece that only requires one hand.
They’re so accessible as people that you start to expect that same level of accessibility form their music. Which, to a certain extent, is true. The songs are very catchy and have attracted a lot of followers from varying demographics (my mom likes them, and as a general principle we don’t like the same music). But at the same time, if you try to understand their music, you’re sorely disappointed. It’s just a whole other level of different. You like them so much that you want to understand their work, but I don’t really think you can. That’s what’s frustrating about them, but also I think that’s the point. That’s the allure of it.