As one of 2012's most successful music newcomers, UK indie collective alt-J has conquered the masses with a sound that some refer to as "heavy yet romantic novel sound." With their compellingly genre-defying debut offering An Awesome Wave, the Cambridge quartet has successfully fused literary references with understated yet pervasive rock sounds that earned them prestigious awards such as the 2012 British Barclaycard Mercury Prize, as the bookmakers' favorite, as well as BBC Radio 6 Music Album of the Year 2012. In addition, the band's video work further indicates their creative potential with subtle yet surprising special effects that further positioned at the helm of the "British band resurgence." Reason enough for us to have a chat with the band.
What do you say about the great response of your debut album An Awesome Wave? How do you feel about it?
I don’t really know, It's quite strange, having a concept then one day getting the chance to make it. Never really expecting it to get the reception of the day, then taking it all in and trying to enjoy the vibe of it. Somewhat overwhelming and unexpected really.
How did the album title come about?
It's a line from the American Psycho book when Patrick Bateman tries to book a table at a restaurant with some friends and he starts chanting off. We quite liked the idea behind that scene, you'll have to watch it to know what I mean.
What did feel when you first heard about the Barclaycard Mercury award nomination and what did you feel when you actually earned an award?
On the night, we watched all the other bands play and it really felt like there was no clear winner. Anyone at all could win it. I mean, you sit there and your watching each other play and it's all extremely amazing, followed by being quite drunk and without having an idea that they've just announced your name, then being shuffled straight into a big press conference and interviews for the next hour – it was quite weird.
Your videos for "Fitzpleasure" and "Something Good" usually have a visually demanding, sophisticated style. How do you approach your videos?
There is a website called Radar where you can put up a brief and a budget for a video as a band. It's very much like a forum and a lot of amateur but also professional video makers sign up for it and recommend you different commissions. Then they submit treatment for a deadline. So this is what we have done so far, we have basically set our budget in advance and posted an offer with a deadline on that site. Consequently, then we get loads of video treatments from different video directors. We go through all of them and select some sort of final five and approach and analyze each top five treatment thoroughly and select one. We don't really get involved in the creation of the video per say but we are very involved in the selection.
Is this something you'd like to continue with your feature videos?
Yes, probably yes. Music videos can be difficult to make and it's hard to get it right. It's not necessarily just about the video but it gives the director to come up with a concept, short film, or idea that at first doesn't seem to fit the theme of the song or relate to it but it can turn up becoming integral to the song. It's a chance for artists to collaborate with us.
You have a lot of film and literary references in your songs and videos. How does this connection to your music come about?
A lot of cultural things are connected and they should not be forcefully separated. There's a lot of literal reference and film reference simply because we like reading and watching films. You can write songs about quite personal experiences, but if you do that and reference a film that others might have seen – or a specific moment in the film to describe the narrative within the song – then you might have more impact with the audience, making the song a more accessible piece. This way, you use film or literature as a vessel, resonating with people a bit more because they're already familiar with that literature through personal experiences.
What inspired you to mash up Dr. Dre and Kylie Minogue?
Dr. Dre's 2001 cut "Still D.R.E." is actually one of the first tracks the band performed together. It was just an instrumental version which was probably quite boring. One day we were walking down the street and Gus started humming "Slow" by Kylie Minogue and it occurred to us that the melody of "Slow" would fit with "Still D.R.E." perfectly. So we've had the idea for about a year, but never had the time to see if it could work. We had the morning off last time we were in San Francisco and decided to experiment with the idea, and Gus was right – it did all fit together.
You are about to tour the United States. What can the American audience expect from you?
This will be our second real tour of America; it isn't a very long tour because we're just going back to do the West Coast. In March, April we'll be back to do a bigger American tour. We’re touring so much and haven’t really stopped all year. Every time we go back to the places we've been to, we just get a bit more confident and when we're confident we'll play better, we're at ease on stage which means the songs sound better. We're predominantly playing our album live, but I'm sure there will be a Kylie Minogue cover in there somewhere, in addition to trying out new material. Because we're so busy on tour, we haven’t had the time to write and record so we've been trying to compose during sound check, etc. We have a pretty basic setup live. We don't have any backing tracks – every sound you hear is delivered via someone in the band so there's not much to hide behind if something goes wrong. Therefore, it's quite an honest performance.
What is your favorite album release in 2012 other than your own LP?
There's an artist from New Zealand called Princess Chelsea which most people haven’t heard of, but recently suggested to us. She's recorded an album called Little Golden Book. I'm not sure how to describe it, it's an interesting development from indie music. It's kind of dark, progressive and takes you to a different world. I also really like the new Hot Chip album In Our Hands.
What is your goal for 2013?
That's a hard one. We didn't really have goals as a band. We just met at a university and we were doing it as a hobby, then we graduated from our degree and gave our shared interest a go and decided to form a band. We didn’t really have any more of a goal then chancing it. So I’m not sure if we've got any goals for 2013 other than carrying on what we're doing, working on our second album, and seeing where that takes us.
Interview: Selina Tan