An Interview With Gwil From Alt-J ∆

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Alt-J ∆ are by far one of the most talked about bands so far this year, with a Mercury Prize nomination and an amazingly successful debut under their belt I wonder what the seeming force of nature that is Alt-J ∆ can do next. I had the opportunity to speak to guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury over the phone to ask him a few questions about the band, it was just after they played at Reading Festival and just before playing at this year’s Bestival. Enjoy.

How did Alt-J begin? You all went to University of Leeds, explain a little bit about how the band started.

Me, Joe and Thom all studied fine art, on the same course in the same year and Gus was in halls with Joe and Gus also took one of the History and Art modules that we were taking. We just spent a lot of time together in each other’s bedrooms, we didn’t have much equipment; we had barely any equipment. It was just an exciting thing to do and I think at university, if you were gonna be a in a band at any point, it seemed like the best point to do it. We started playing at other places and some people had seen us playing and we got some professional management, a booking agent and we just sort of started being a band. After we graduated we were unsigned band for 6 months and then we got signed up by Infectious.

In terms of this summer, how has your festival season been?

It’s been long, we’ve done loads. We’ve been to some pretty cool places, we’ve been to Japan! And all around Europe, we had an amazing festival in Spain this year that was on an island, just off the coast and we could only get there by boat. We’ve been to some pretty interesting festivals and we just came back from Reading and Leeds festival.

How were the crowds?

The crowd at Reading was the most energetic crowd we’ve ever played too. They were all moshing before we even started playing! Then there was actually a circle mosh during ‘Matilda’ which was really bizarre. That’s not something that ever happens and then suddenly it happens at Reading Festival. I think it got people quite excited.

How does it feel to see a sea of people holding up the triangle symbol with their hands? 

Yeh, that’s pretty odd. It’s more of a joke really I think to us than anything else. It started as a bit of a joke of us having a gang sign but then to see people actually doing it at gigs, I didn’t expect it; we didn’t really used to do it that much either. I don’t know which fan started doing it and turned it into a thing but it’s nice that they have. We’ve got this photo from Pukklepop of the whole crowd doing it, Gus put the lights up half way through the set and got his iPhone and took a picture. It’s a very strange thing going from a band that’s touring the UK and where no one’s ever heard of us, to going to places like Japan and there being a crowd that knows the words to your songs.

Gwil playing at Bestival this year.

Are you going to try and catch any other acts at Bestival over the weekend?

I think it’s probably unlikely, because we’ll probably just be coming in for our set and we’re really busy. Recently we’ve watched a few from the side of stage which has been great, such as The xx, Hot Chip and Django Django, all of whom were all great. It’s interesting to see how other bands deal with problems because if it happened to us, we wouldn’t know what to do! We’d all freak out. It’s great seeing other bands dealing with it really professionally and that you keep that energy going with the crowd and not get people leaving, you learn a lot when you watch other bands.

You’re going to America this year, are you looking forward to that?

We’ve been to America twice now, we were there about a month ago and we did five dates and that was amazing. I didn’t really know how it worked so I think every show we played was sold out. When we played Chicago, there were girls that had flown in from Canada to watch us. It was weird but amazing. It’s going to be our first month long tour of America, sort of going around the whole country as a band, going from coast to coast, so it’ll be a proper journey.

Are there any places that you particularly like playing in the UK?

Leeds is somewhere that we definitely like to go back to, but I think in a way we have a bigger following in Manchester. London’s always an interesting one to do. It’s quite a funny one because the crowd always seem a lot cooler than you; I always feel a little intimidated by the crowd, because we play in the clothes we just wear around the whole day. I’m going to really enjoy Bristol probably because my family are from there. I think Manchester is going to be the most interesting one. In the venue, the audience goes around the whole thing. And also having to stand centre stage and with the audience all around you, it poses a lot of problems for me in terms of how to set up, are we all going to face in? Are we gonna face out? It’ll be a more interesting show to play and a more interesting show to come to.

You must get asked loads about your band name, because you were called FILMS before. How did you come to choose Alt-J?

Yeh it was a necessity. It got to the point where we were being booked for shows under FILMS for four months and we knew we weren’t going to be able to use that name any more. We were under a lot of pressure to change the name as soon as possible, so we just spent all of our spare time trying to come up with it [a new name]. I was on my computer and I was just looking up keyboard commands and just saw the one that made the triangle or delta to be specific and we thought it was cool. We knew that the delta would look good on T-shirts and posters so we quite liked that and it was quite mysterious. When we chose it we didn’t know it was the British Mac exclusive, so the ∆ (delta) was our band name. But we didn’t want to be called ‘delta’ so we just used the keyboard command and it sort of stuck. We quite liked the way it sounded.

Your album An Awesome Wave was released earlier this year, what’s it like giving these songs to the public.

Every time we play the same place again, like every time we play Paris or something, it’s like a level up from the last time we played there. More people know all the words to the songs and more people are up dancing and having fun and being more relaxed with it.  We find ourselves laughing quite a lot on stage because the response can be quite overwhelming when people are singing along, it’s flattering really. Seeing a crowd enjoy our music  is quite a privileged position to be in and it’s just quite funny, we haven’t got bored of playing anything yet I don’t think. Every time we play it there’s a different response and it’s always interesting to do.

Your songs are very influenced by art and literature is that something that Joe just pushes through as the main writer, or do you all contribute to the writing of the songs? 

We don’t interfere with lyrics, that’s very much Joe’s baby, but we fiddle around with structure a lot. So I dunno, It’s more about making the tracks sound as interesting as possible and sometimes two tracks are more interesting being put together as one song. So you might get lyrics that mean one thing in one half of the song, and a different thing in the other. Sometimes they don’t even make that much sense! That’s all Joe really. The Guardian has called us ‘intellectual’ which is quite funny because that has nothing to do with it at all really. Joe’s not some wordly pretentious person who reads ridiculous books; we call him ‘The Jock’ so it’s quite funny when people think his writing is quite intellectual. I don’t think it is, it’s just Joe and he’s not really intellectual he’s just Joe.

I have one last question, what does the future hold for Alt-J? Are you planning album number two? 

We’re trying not to worry about it. The current album took four years to write – Joe might say even longer – so I’m not worried about putting another album out in the next year and I don’t think we should feel pressured into doing that. If I was a fan of a band, I wouldnt want them to make another album for the sake of making a second album too soon. I think that’s where bands can go wrong. So I think we’re just gonna see how it goes. Right now we don’t have any plans to work on a second album because we’re touring too much.

You can catch Alt-J ∆ on their upcoming UK tour this autumn. 

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I’m Megan Downing, an English Literature graduate from University of Southampton. I am the Music, Arts and Culture Editor for The National Student. I am the Membership and Communications Officer for the Student Publication Association, I write about music for 7BitArcade, and contribute regularly to The Culture Trip. I have a passion for live music and this is where I began in student journalism. Reviewing a gig or festival is still where my heart lies four years on. I will be starting at MTV as a News Intern in June 2015. One thing you should know about me is that I have an unhealthy obsession with Kevin Spacey.

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