Alt-J’s lead singer, Joe Newman, speaks to Alexia Ganotaki about the band’s journey and what it was like to win the Mercury Award.
The lead singer of Alt-J, Joe Newman, already had inspiration for his songs before he joined Alt-J: his musician dad and hallucinogenic drugs.
“It was kind of a joke. We [Joe and band mate Gwil] were talking about song writing, playing the guitar and the way I sing, being affected by seeing my dad play and doing hallucinogenics.
“I still see my dad but I no longer take mind-bending drugs. I played the guitar because my dad played the guitar. He was always writing songs, so I guess I just naturally picked up on that way of venting,” said Joe.
Despite studying in Leeds, the indie-folk quartet wasn’t your typical group of students who went out to clubs. Instead, they preferred going to quiet pubs with their friends.
However, they left their nerdy, tame student selves behind and acted more rock ‘n’ roll when they won the prestigious 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Award.
Joe laughs and then adds: “We got absolutely smashed. I mean we just won the Mercury. We went to bed ridiculously late into early morning.”
Originally named FILMS, until a case of mistaken identity with the US band The Films, the northern foursome quickly came up with the name Alt-J. Inspired by the Alt J keyboard button on a Mac, which creates a triangle or delta sign Δ.
From fine art to music
The three fine art students Joe Newman, Gwil Sainsbury, Thom Green and Gus Unger-Hamilton, who studied English literature, all met at Leeds University in 2007 and formed the band in their second year.
Although the humble, mild-mannered introverted pop group is constantly viewed as the foursome who drew on all kinds of musical genres from hip-hop to folk, rock to pop and electronic to indie, Alt-J were quite reluctant to describe their music.
“At a push we would say we are folk electronica,” Joe said.
Their debut album An Awesome Wave sky-rocketed them to victory for the £20,000 Mercury Prize win earlier this month.
“The standard was naturally high. They picked 12 artists who have written exceptional albums. So when we won we were super bowled over, it was bizarre.
“Everyone was really nice, we met The Maccabees for the first time and they were lovely. So basically no one was a dick,” joked Joe.
Joe took us through his advice to students hoping to make it in the industry.
He said: “If you’re enjoying what you’re doing and you’re excited by what you’re writing, that’s a great start. I wouldn’t advise anyone to just send an album to a label. As long as you are enjoying what you’re doing, that’s the main thing.
“The music industry will find you, if you’re doing something they can attach a barrier to.”