Alt-J: it s all Greek to them
British band Alt-J

Named after a Mac keyboard shortcut that produces the symbol for the Greek letter delta, British band Alt-J have seemingly found a shortcut to success if the past six months are anything to go by.

Since the release of their debut album, An Awesome Wave, in May, the four-piece have been compared with Radiohead and leapt into Mercury Prize favouritism.

"Firstly, we've only released an album. Radiohead have released, I don't know, maybe eight," vocalist Joe Newman says, almost apologetically.

"The reason why they're great isn't because of one particular album, it's because of their catalogue so that's why it's a premature comparison."

But it's a comparison, incidentally made by a UK betting agency running a book on the Mercury Prize, that Newman can understand given both bands specialise in "considered" music, replete with coded lyrics and impersonal song titles.

Of course, by this time tomorrow the comparison may be even less accurate if the band wins the Mercury - something Radiohead have never done.

They face stiff competition in the form of brilliant albums by Django Django, Plan B and the like but, as the cliche goes, it's an honour just to be nominated.

"That's big. I mean, we've grown up watching the Mercurys and, for me, it's always been the summit; the platform for great music, which has been chosen by great people in the industry," Newman agrees.

Such a win would mark a dramatic rise from Alt-J's humble beginnings in 2007, as a dorm room GarageBand project between Newman and guitar-bass player Gwil Sainsbury, who were studying at Leeds University at the time with future band members Thom Green (drums) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards).

The group's trademark folk-step sound, a genre-straddling blend of folk, hip-hop and electronica, is a result of the disparate musical backgrounds of its members; Green was in a grindcore band, Unger-Hamilton is classically trained, Newman came through the pub-gigging scene and Sainsbury "kind of adapts to his environment".

After a few years playing shows under other names (as Daljit Dhaliwal and then as Films), the band received significant attention last year when songs such as Breezeblocks and Tessellate came to light on a demo EP, released under their current, unusual moniker.

"The funny thing is I'm not even a big fan of the name," Newman admits.

"What happened was we had to change our name. We were originally called Films and there was a band in America called the Films, so to avoid a suing we were advised to change our name."

But getting four people to agree on a name was easier said than done and by week three, with festival bookings requiring a band name ASAP, pressure from management started to build.

Consequently, though Newman wasn't overly enthusiastic about Sainsbury's "Alt-J" suggestion, which the band say refers to the use of the delta symbol in mathematical equations to denote change, because the other two guys were already on board, he "pretended that it was great".

The singer didn't have to feign enthusiasm at the news Mumford & Sons covered Tessellate during a BBC1 performance in September.

"When I heard about it I was shocked because, in my eyes, Mumford & Sons are a massive band and equal to their size is my respect for them because they are fantastic musicians," Newman says.

"They've always been a big deal so I was extremely flattered and was like 'Does this mean I might actually get to meet them?' "

With a Mumford cover in the bag, talk turns to fantasy covers and Newman admits it would be a dream come true to have their music reworked by US a cappella folk trio Mountain Man, Laura Marling or, curiously, rap hero Nas.

While Alt-J will never be the sort of band that play many covers themselves - "we can't just strum a guitar like Oasis and sing f…ing Rihanna's Umbrella" - Australian fans will see them do a mash-up of Dr Dre's Still D.R.E and Slow by our very own Kylie.

"It's still kind of finding its feet but we are playing it live so by early February when we're over there for Laneway we should have it figured out."

'That's big. I mean we've grown up watching the Mercurys and, for me, it's always been the summit; the platform for great music, which has been chosen by great people in the industry.'

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West