seek serif;”>Kathryn Toolan takes a look at Mercury Prize 2012 winners Alt-J, their winning album and what this means for the band’s future
On Thursday evening Lauren Laverne gave Alt-J some good news. Firm favourites from the outset (with odds of 4/5 to win), the quartet from Leeds landed themselves with the coveted Mercury Music Prize. Staving off competition from big names such as Plan B and The Maccabees, their debut album An Awesome Wave blew away judges and audiences alike. Past Mercury Prize winners include Primal Scream and Arctic Monkeys: an indicator of the bright future ahead of this young band. The foursome humbly accepted their award, thanking everyone on “team Alt-J” and also sending a special thank you to their parents, for “not making us get real jobs.” But who are Alt-J and why have they been causing such Waves in the music world (pun very much intended)?
Alt-J’s name comes from the command on a Mac keyboard to type the Greek letter “Delta”, which in mathematical equations is used to denote change. The foursome were formed in 2007 when Gwil Sainsbury (guitar/bass), Joe Newman (guitar/vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards) and Thom Green (drums) all met at Leeds University. Unger-Hamilton majored in English Literature whilst the others studied Fine Art (influences that can be clearly seen in their music). It was in the dorms at Leeds that the creative process began. Newman showed Sainsbury songs he had created, which were inspired by hallucinogens and a musical father. The band started to develop these ideas, while Gwil did most of the producing using GarageBand on his laptop. After graduation they relocated to Cambridge and began rehearsing in the basement of their house. For two years they explored and fine tuned their unique sound until they were signed in 2011 by Infectious Records. A self-titled demo was released in 2011 and on the 25th of May 2012, after five years of work – An Awesome Wave was released in the UK. The band began touring in Europe and America and Wave had an American release on September 18th of this year.
An Awesome Wave is a thirteen track musical experience. Each song is crafted carefully, utilising the skill and talent of each of the four men. A hard band to categorise, Alt-J seem to defy genre. Critics have described them as “trip hop” and “folk step”, at times comparing them to other neu-folk bands like Mumford and Sons. There are some similarities between the bands but their differences outweigh the common elements: Alt-J are Alt-J. Wave is a musical representation of four charismatic individuals. Through solid drum beats, lyricism and shuddering guitars, the bands personality is evident. Newman’s haunting vocal style penetrates each track whilst Green’s drum sets rival the beats of some dubstep today. Drums dominate in “Bloodflood”, a song about panic and fear in a time of confrontation. Thick recurring beats resonate throughout, the heartbeat of the song. References to film, literature and history are found in almost every song. The song “Fitzpleasure” is a retelling of the final chapter of “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, the 1964 novel by Hubert Selby Jr. In the final track of the album, “Taro”, Newman laments the loss of the photojournalist Gerda Taro, who was killed in 1937 near Madrid, whilst documenting The Spanish Civil War, in particular the Battle of Brunete. For Alt-J, words are not simply an accompaniment to music – lyrics are a musical instrument themselves, pouring over each other with rhythmic perfection. Newman’s range is showcased throughout the album, his unique warblings causing shivers, particularly in “Intro”, the first track on the album. In the song “Tesselate” Unger-Hamilton’s crisp keyboard skills shine through, perfectly accompanied by another resounding drum beat. A love song of sorts, it differs slightly from other tracks on the album. It is slow-paced but all-consuming. Compare this to “Something Good” or “Breezeblocks” and the differences become more evident, both are noticeably more upbeat. But the point has to be made that all tracks on An Awesome Wave are inherently different. To broadly categorise them as “alternative” is the safest bet. Every time the album is listened to, a new element becomes more prominent thus dismantling any preset genre. Wave combines so much but never over – complicates. The sound of Wave starts with many different elements, each capable of standing alone respectively, coming together in unison to produce a final sound that is simply beautiful.
On September 12th, the shortlist was announced for this years Mercury Music Prize. Competition was stiff. Plan B, Ben Howard and Richard Hawley all got the nod. But as award night drew closer it was the genre-confused Alt-J that had risen through the ranks and were now favourites to win the Prize and the £20,000 (€24,931). So how will this affect Alt-J? Winning Mercury is a catalyst that, if used correctly, will gain Alt-J worldwide recognition. Already An Awesome Wave has gained a 79% increase in sales since their nomination and this will only increase as time goes on. A recent gig on Later..With Jools Holland further increased these sales and expanded the fan base for the Cambridge quartet. Has it gone to their heads? In a post Mercury interview, Unger-Hamilton commented that whilst the £20,000 was nice, it wouldn’t even pay off his student loans – a sign the band don’t see themselves as megastars yet. Instead, the prize money is going to a far nobler cause: “We’re planning to fly our parents to the same place in the world and buy them all an expensive dinner.” But although they are a humble group, they are confident of their own talent, Unger-Hamilton stating “I like listening to it and I think that it is a testament to it,” (winning Mercury) Where to now for Alt-J? “It’s completely uncharted territory. You can never say. I have no idea what it means for us,” commented Sainsbury.
Alt-J’s five years of hard work and dedication has paid off and it is now time to reap the benefits. The Mercury Music Prize celebrates the freshest sound in music today, and they certainly fit the bill in every respect. As long as they stay true to form and continue making extraordinary sounds, Alt-J have an extremely bright future -and we can hardly wait.