Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

Laneway 2013: Alt-J go from dole to 'new Radiohead'

This time last year the four members of acclaimed Brit band Alt-J were on the dole. Now they're Mercury Music prizewinners. They talk to Chris Schulz.

Alt-J are performing at Laneway Festival at Silo Park on Auckland Anniversary Day. Photo / Supplied
Alt-J are performing at Laneway Festival at Silo Park on Auckland Anniversary Day. Photo / Supplied

"Utterly compelling," said one reviewer. "A brilliantly disquieting debut," said another. Several more suggested Alt-J were nothing short of being "the new Radiohead".

But the four members of the hyped British act didn't have any ambitions for An Awesome Wave - their debut album, written and recorded while the art-school graduates were still on the dole.

"I thought we would release it and some bloggers would like it," guitarist Gwil Sainsbury tells TimeOut during tour downtime at a Melbourne hotel.

"Maybe we'd do a couple of UK tours and a bit around Europe, it would slow up and we'd start writing the second album," he says.

It's fair to say An Awesome Wave - a unique and eclectic collection full of odd time signatures, off-kilter harmonies and the sea shanty vocal traits of singer Joe Newman - has done a little better than that.

It's been hailed as one of the year's best albums (TimeOut ranked it at No 30), has seen the band tour America, Japan and Europe, and recently snagged the prestigious Mercury Music Prize - including a cheque for £20,000 ($38,000).

The award's judges called it "innovative, arty, but engaging and warm".

Sainsbury says the band - which also includes singer Joe Newman, drummer Thom Green and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton - have been so busy their success hasn't yet hit home.

"We're so busy touring ... it's very hard for us to have any real orientation of what level of band we are."

Green, who had been overseas only once before the album came out, still sounds shocked.

"I had no idea it would be like this ... We were still on the dole in January."

They won't need to worry about dole queues for a while. Alt-J's lives are mapped out for the next 12 months, including a repeat tour of America and Europe, and a high-profile spot on the St Jerome's Laneway festival bill, which hits Auckland on January 28.

Success is coming thick and fast for the band - but so is a need to learn how to cope with constant demands from their newly won fans.

"There's definitely been a shift from being at a show and no one wanting to speak to you, to being at a show and everybody speaking to you," Green says.

"It's not a bad thing, it's just the way it is. We went to a bar last night after the show and just met tons of people who were at the show [and] suddenly you're the main attraction at the bar."

Sainsbury: "No one can prepare you for anything like that because it never happens, it's so rare."

Both say the point where they realised things were taking off was during a Live Lounge session for BBC Radio 1.

"Not every band gets to do that. I was just standing there waiting to go live, thinking, I could f*** this up massively," laughs Sainsbury.

"There are various moments where you think, this is going well ... that's a step up."

Their success is thanks largely to a sound that's nearly impossible to label. Green says that's because each member of Alt-J has different tastes, but equal input into the recording of a song.

Green describes their sound as "addictive".

"We've got different musical backgrounds and I think that has made it kind of unique. At the same time it does follow certain rules - there are things that you can hook on to, but it has this uniqueness to it.

"A lot of people say it's addictive and the tracks are quite personal, the lyrics are quite deep, the songs are quite intricate - there's a lot going on. People connect with it really well."

If they get time in their heavy tour schedule, Alt-J hope to start on a new album next year.

There's certainly no sign of nerves.

"I don't doubt we can match what we've done. It's not going to be the same - we don't want to make the same album, like an extension," Green says.

"I'd like it to be different because we're different."

Who: Alt-J
What: Album, An Awesome Wave, out now. Reissue due January 18
When: 5.20pm, Hey Seuss Stage
Listen: New single, Something Good

Pick up TimeOut in tomorrow's NZ Herald for full Laneway coverage.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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