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This article is from Issue 64: July/August 2013

Alt-J

If we were Illuminati, we couldn’t say we were,” laughs Gwil Sainsbury.

He’s referencing fans’ persistent suspicions that the name “Alt-J” is a coded reference to secret organizations, which is no laughing matter.

But he makes a good point.

In fact, “Alt-J” is simply a nerdy allusion to the keystrokes on a Mac that create a tiny triangle. And while the name doesn’t have much symbolic meaning, despite the Internet’s best effort to propagate otherwise, it is a name that sticks.

Luckily for Alt-J, so does their music. The four Brits—Sainsbury, Joe Newman, Gus Unger-Hamilton, and Thom Green (not to be confused with Tom Green)—made a sudden, stunning explosion onto the global music scene last spring. Their ineffable and sometimes disorienting sound has turned the heads of critics and fans since their album, An Awesome Wave, was released last May. They became mainstays at music festivals in less time than it takes most new bands to get a single song on Grey’s Anatomy, which is just as well. Alt-J’s songs are a little too odd to get much in the way of mainstream recognition, anyway.

“There’s a quote from Hitchcock and he says, ‘An audience would rather be confused than bored.’ And I think we sort of take that approach,” says Sainsbury. “I don’t want there ever to be a point where someone’s listening to our music and they’re like, ‘This is boring.’ You want someone to listen to the album start to finish and feel like they’ve gone on some kind of journey.”

“When you get really attached to an album, it becomes a part of your life for that time.”


This journey twists from synthesized overtones to a clinking xylophone within the same song, leaving listeners with a dizzying, almost ethereal lucidity. Think Gorillaz covering Frank Ocean. It sounds a little like Pink Floyd and a little like Radiohead, the latter of which is coming up as a frequent point of comparison. It’s a comparison Sainsbury dismisses.

“Radiohead hasn’t died in some plane crash,” he says. “They’re still going. I’ve seen a few headlines of articles that have been like, ‘The New Radiohead,’ which seems completely absurd, because they’re a band that can still make another record.”

“I don’t think we ever set out to sound like anyone,” he continues. “We sort of all just jam until we’re all happy with each other’s part. I’m sure subconsciously you take from everything you’ve experienced, whether it’s music or not.”