When a bunch of boys in a band live together, you imagine they eat total crap: endless beige dinners of pie and chips, baked beans on toast, heaped plates of over-cooked pasta and late night kebabs. Not ∆ (that’s Alt-J if you want to pronounce it). Over a coffee in Soho, Joe Newman (vocals/guitar, top right), Gwil Sainsbury (bass, bottom right), Thom Green (drums, top left) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/backing vocals, bottom left) explain that they never ate better than when they all lived on top of each other, crammed into a two-bedroom house. Unger-Hamilton is nominated as the culinary king (signature dish: tagine), while Sainsbury claims the keyboardist’s mackerel, sweet potato, horseradish and beetroot salad was the best meal he’s had all year. They thought living together would be like Flight of the Conchords, but say it was better. Having moved to Cambridge after graduating from Leeds University, with three Fine Art and one English Lit degree between them, the quartet turned their house into a permanent practice space, in which they wrote and rehearsed constantly. The result is An Awesome Wave (out May 28 on Infectious), a debut album that swirls with eerily rippled guitars, odd intonations, hymnal grooves and surprising rhythms. Check out our premiere of “Something Good” below, then read what the band has to say.
Stream: ∆ (Alt-J), "Something Good"
Joe, you’ve said that your first experiences of music were through your dad. What sort of music did he used to play? JOE NEWMAN: He went from pub to pub playing Eric Clapton, James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel with his sister. He also wrote a song called “Muscovado Sugar,” and it’s actually quite a sexy song. I think it’s about him smearing it all over his body.
Which brings us nicely on to [your song] “Tessellate”. Is this a euphemism for sex? NEWMAN: Yep, it’s pretty much about sex and finding the right person and… GWIL SAINSBURY: Fitting in where you can. A struggle!
Lyrically, where do you draw your inspiration from? NEWMAN: Books, films, girls… GUS UNGER-HAMILTON: And heroes. People like the photographer Robert Capa. NEWMAN: He was a war photographer who fell in love with another war photographer called Gerda Taro. They were engaged and very much in love and she died–I think a tank ran over her. He turned into a bit of a celebrity and hung out with 1940s Hollywood set. But he never got over her death. He went to report on the Indochina war and he stood on a landmine and died. So our song “Taro” is about him standing on the landmine and eventually being reconnected with Taro as he dies.
Can you remember your first impressions of each other? UNGER-HAMILTON: Yes. Joe had a really big spot between his eyebrows. NEWMAN: The first time I saw Gus was across the kitchen at this party and I knew he was staring at it. When you’ve got a really big spot and someone is looking at you, you know they’re looking straight at it.
Was it really that big? UNGER-HAMILTON: It was big enough that I remember it four years later! But also I thought he was cool. GWIL SAINSBURY: Leeds is a massive university, but I do remember clocking Gus walking around campus in his skinny jeans, being six-foot-five, mincing around. I went to Joe’s flat pretty early because I told him that I'd written some songs and I wanted to collaborate with someone. We were very cautious about humiliating each other.
It must be nerve-wracking and sort of awkward to reveal your songs to someone for the first time. NEWMAN: I didn’t want him to pretend not to like the music and see the disappointment behind the eyes, but I didn’t want to say that. I wanted to play as little as possible and play the best thing I had.
These days you write a lot of your music in the toilet. NEWMAN: Yeah I write everywhere. I can write on the toilet, off it, outside, while tessellating. Writing in the toilet is actually quite nice because the acoustics are so good. It’s quite friendly on your voice and you’re detached from everyone else. You’ve got the bath running, or the chain constantly flushing. You’re fine, no one can hear a thing. SAINSBURY: No, we really can.
What’s the story behind the album title? NEWMAN: An Awesome Wave is a line taken from the our song “Blood Flood”, the penultimate song on the album, and it references a line that Christian Bale says as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. It’s the bit where he goes to a really posh, busy restaurant with a crowd of people but he hasn’t booked a table. He goes up to the maître d’ and asks for a table and he’s expecting them to say, No it’s too busy, and for him to be really embarrassed in front of his friends – bearing in mind he’s a psycho. But then he gets a table and he talks about the relief washing over him like an awesome wave. We swapped relief for fear in the song, and “Blood Flood” is all about being attacked.
What’s the most personal song on the album. SAINSBURY: “Ms” is probably the most emotionally affecting song. NEWMAN: It’s about breaking up with someone, trying to get over them and trying conquer that hangover, to start thinking of them in a different way and start trying to get a friendship going. It’s like ME when you feel lethargic all the time and in a real rut.
Has she heard it? NEWMAN: Yeah she’s heard it. She’s a big part of album for me because I was seeing her a lot and she’s a really good friend. SAINSBURY: I played our friend Stuart the album the other day and he said he almost started crying during “Ms”. NEWMAN: Really? The guy who started it for us in terms of getting us together with the right people–our producer, our manager etc.–he was saying the “Ms” was his favourite track of 2012 so far. I guess it really strikes a certain chord. HAMILTON-UNGER: Maybe it’s just a song that guys cry to.