From an outsider's view, it may seem like the U.K. quartet Alt-J emerged from out of nowhere with An Awesome Wave, one of last year's most unexpected indie rock success stories. Winner of the 2012 Mercury Music Prize, and earning nominations for a laundry list of Brit awards including Best Album, Best British Band, and Best Breakthrough Act, the album found singer and guitarist Joe Newman, guitar/bass player Gwil Sainsbury, drummer Thom Green, and keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton under the spotlight.
But as Unger-Hamilton explains, the album that has drawn so much attention to the group is the product of a studied, but relaxed process — solitude. "You can take as long as you want for your first album — you can take 30 years — because no one's waiting for it, really," Unger-Hamilton says. "We were quite lucky in that no one had really heard of us until the album came out."
Since arriving last May in the U.K. and last September in the U.S., An Awesome Wave has gone on to sell more than 350,000 copies worldwide. The band's fan base has grown exponentially, resulting in nonstop sold-out shows. But success is a double-edged sword for Alt-J.
An Awesome Wave is the culmination of a long three years spent honing an insular creative process. The album's distinctions, idiosyncrasies, and melodies that give life to songs such as "Breezeblocks," "Fitzpleasure," and the album's first single, "Matilda," are the product of writing in obscurity. Rekindling this same creative energy, on the heels of so much success, may be the biggest challenge the group has faced yet.
An Awesome Wave is a collection of wistful pop, bound by restrained instrumental arrangements that emphasize a sense of gentle emotional immediacy over excess. Newman's lyrics are laced with a wealth of literary and cultural references, giving nods to everything from Luc Besson's 1994 film Leon: The Professional to Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. This kind of approach is wholly appropriate considering the album's genesis on the grounds of England's University of Leeds, where the group's members met — Unger-Hamilton studied James Joyce as a literature major, while Newman, Sainsbury, and Green studied fine art.
Of their four-plus years writing music together, Unger-Hamilton explains that taking an inordinate amount of time was key to seeing each song through to completion. "It has always been a very artistic approach to write the right songs and write interesting songs; don't rush a song's idea," he says. "That attitude has done us well. ... Taking your time with things is really useful."
During Alt-J's formative years, most of the group's time was spent simply writing songs that they all liked, just for the pleasure of the process. "We were still students," he adds. "Being in the band without any pressure was really good."
First performing under the names Daljit Dhaliwal, and then as FILMS, the group later adopted the name Alt-J because of the pyramid shape by pressing the alt+j keys on a computer keyboard. The group began playing local stages without much in the way of "shiny guitars" and "stage twakker," as Unger-Hamilton puts it. He had misgivings about fellow bands that tried to impress with fancy gear, and thought it best to focus on the craft. "I don't want to be snobbish, but [other bands] were more fretful about the altitude, and didn't have the patience we did for songwriting."
But audiences, however small, were always taken aback by their shows. It was during these earlier years that Alt-J won the attention of a well-connected friend in the music industry — someone who wishes to keep his identity unknown, says Unger-Hamilton, because he doesn't want his identity hinged on the fact that he broke Alt-J. "It's not that interesting," Unger-Hamilton says. "He's a cool guy, and he works in the music industry, not in a big way, in quite a minor way. He works hard and knows lots of people."
This friend referred the group to producer Charlie Andrew (Micachu & The Shapes, Eagulls), who offered to record their demo for free. Thus began a process spanning several years, in which every few months they'd pile into a bus and take the four-hour ride to London to record one meticulously edited song at a time. This was the first of several breaks for Alt-J. The group's anonymous friend, together with an attorney, introduced them to a manager, and in 2011 Alt-J signed to Infectious Music (Local Natives, These New Puritans). Following the success of singles "Matilda" and "Breezeblocks," and an endless touring schedule, Alt-J emerged from obscurity.
A year later, the one question they get asked the most is, "When will you write the next album?" But the answer is rife with conflict. "From the outside, you don't appreciate how much bands tour, and how hard it is to actually write music when you're on tour," Unger-Hamilton says. "We find it's hard, anyway."
In the meantime, the group is pushing forward. Earlier this month, it announced that it would write the score to Bruce Goodison's British independent film, Leave to Remain, a move that aligns with the members' love of cinema. But will Alt-J be able to summon the same level of creativity without the leisure of being anonymous? Making art for its own sake is one thing; doing so when the world is watching is quite another.