Interview: Alt-J

KATIE FORSTER talks to Mercury Prize nominees ALT-J about festivals, illegal downloads and surprise encounters with Cambridge drinking societies.

| UPDATED Alt-J An Awesome Wave Art Cambridge Drinking Societies festivals folk illegal downloads interview katie forster mercury prize Music

Basking in rapturous praise from critics in all corners and hotly tipped for a Mercury Prize, fellow Cambridge dwellers Alt-J are onto something good.

The four piece group met at Leeds University in 2007 where they admit to being social hermits who were more interested in perfecting their sound than going out on the town. And it shows – their first album An Awesome Wave is a clever yet catchy mix of dreamy, fresh, folk-tinged electronic indie.

We caught up with Gus from the band to find out what it’s like being in one of the UK’s most-hyped new bands, and all about their experience of Cambridge drinking societies…

Hi Gus. Where in the world are you?

We’re in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a little college town near Detroit. It’s pretty, very chilled, very liberal – smoking weed is legal here. Being on tour is great because every day we’re in a new place, meeting new people and we’re always like, ‘wow, we have fans here too?!’

How have your lives changed over the last year?

Well we’ve always taken things quite seriously.  We’ve become more popular and we’re no longer on the dole, which is nice.

What’s your connection to Cambridge?

I grew up in Ely and after we finished our degrees in Leeds I suggested we move to Cambridge, as it’s close to London but quieter, to get some good work done.  All four of us plus Gwil’s girlfriend lived in a two bedroom house in Victoria Road for a year. We didn’t really have any friends apart from each other, but we had a nice way of life: we’d just wake up, do a bit of band practice, go into town, maybe treat ourselves to a pint…

Did you ever crash any college bars?

We went to Darwin College bar sometimes because we knew a guy who worked there. This one time Joe and I were at the Maypole and these drinking societies came in from Jesus College. There was an all-female society called the Black Widows who were absolutely mental. Then they left, and their male counterparts, the Caesareans, came in. We were just trying to have a quiet drink and we got caught up in these crazy drinking games and stuff. It was bizarre.

I really like the folk influences in your music. Do you have a background in folk music?

My mum’s side of the family are from Sussex, and I wouldn’t quite call it an oral tradition, but they know loads of folk songs which I just learnt singing with them. Bits of our album are quite folky but also have this slightly medieval feel, a bit like a Gregorian chant.

Do you mind if people illegally download your music?

No, we don’t mind at all really.  It is nice to sell records, but we all download music now and then. You shouldn’t just expect to make an album and then sit back and watch the money come in. You have to work harder and plough different furrows. These days, musicians can make more money from t-shirts than albums.

Three of you studied fine art. Who are your favourite artists?

I like contemporary art. When I walk around the Renaissance rooms in the National Gallery, it’s all amazing but it is a bit like, ‘oh look, there’s another saint, oh, there’s Jesus again’. It does get a bit boring. I’d probably rather look at mediocre modern art than lots of amazing old masters.

You used to be called Films. Do you have a favourite film?

Probably The Royal Tenenbaums. People thought we were called Films because we wrote songs about films, but really it was just a word that we liked – it was quite shallow!

Did you enjoy playing at festivals this summer?

Yes. At a festival, you have to give your audience a lot more respect because if they don’t like what they’re hearing they can just go and get a beer. So you do things like, you know, clapping, which felt so unnatural to us at the start. But people love it and by the end you really get into it. Now we’re back playing in clubs, we won’t be doing any more clapping. It doesn’t feel that appropriate.

Are you excited about the future?

Yeah, totally. I think we do have a future. That said, we try to live every day in the present. There’s a lot of fun to be had and a lot of interesting experiences to be gained from what we’re doing, so I look forward to more of that.

You’re playing in Cambridge next May.

Yes, at the Corn Exchange. I used to go there when I was fourteen! I’m really excited about it.