Unexpected Success For Alt-J Brings Good And Bad

Twelve months ago the guys in British rock back Alt-J had a very simple goal: To release an album.

Just something you could hold in your hands, maybe listen to every so often.

“And at least feel that when we died we could legitimately say we released an album on a label,” keyboards player Gus Unger-Hamilton said. “And we could look at it and say, ‘Look, we made an album once.’“

“Kind of like you can show it to your kids,” guitarist-bassist Gwil Sainsbury said.

Photo: Barclaycard Mercury Prize, Jon Furniss/AP
Attending the Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2012 at the Roundhouse, in London.

That debut, An Awesome Wave, went on to win the prestigious Mercury Prize given to the top album of the year in the United Kingdome and Ireland in something of a shocker. The Cambridge quartet has since been a near constant conversation piece on the blogosphere and mid-sized club circuit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The band’s in the midst of a U.S. tour, stopping in for a sold-out show Monday in Nashville, and will be on the road much of the year taking advantage of an endless number of opportunities that have come along since taking the prize over acts like Richard Hawley, Lianne La Havas, Jessie Ware and Michael Kiwanuka.

Just making the Mercury’s coveted 12-member shortlist is a kind of validation, Sainsbury said as he, Unger-Hamilton and drummer Thom Green contemplatively sucked on smokeless cigarettes before soundcheck. Winning it took the tenuousness out of Alt-J’s existence.

“For a long time we were playing the album and we didn’t know if it was sounding like the album,” Sainsbury said. “We weren’t sure it was coming across. But people were pleased with it, and I think this Mercury Prize makes us feel like we’re pretty much a certified real band now.”

That status comes with both perks and drawbacks. The good is obvious: bigger gigs, unexpected record sales and the adoration of a growing fan base that digs the band’s wobbly, pleasingly eccentric brand of pop music. Some wonder if they might be the next big British import, following the path recently laid by British acts like Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran.

The bad? The haters. Lead singer Joe Newman’s voice drives them nuts. And the Mercury? Alt-J’s win was just another sign the prize is losing its cachet.

“If someone doesn’t like a band, that’s totally fair enough,” Sainsbury said. “But sometimes people might take offense at the individuals in the band, and that’s strange.”

“And I can sympathize with somebody who feels betrayed by their favorite band who were totally tiny like we were getting to the level we’ve got to because I probably used to be a bit like that,” Unger-Hamilton said. “I’d feel twinges like, ‘Oh, that kind of bums me out that this band’s got so massive now.”

Never fear, loyal fans. The guys are on guard and acutely aware where the sell-out line is drawn.

They recently turned down a potato chips commercial they were positive would stoke the fires of negativity. The treatment featured a well-known British celebrity riding around on a mini-tractor looking for chip ingredients. The band was expected to contribute a Johnny Cash cover and its credibility to the enterprise.

“I like Johnny Cash,” Unger-Hamilton said. “I wouldn’t want to do that to Johnny Cash. They wanted everything. They said they’d put it online. ‘We’re going to film you recording it. It’s going to be like we own you for this.’ They didn’t actually offer us a fee. They said, ‘How much would you take to do this kind of thing?’“

“Each a million cash,” Green said.

There was a pause in the room.

“I still couldn’t do it,” Unger-Hamilton said.

“It’s just not worth it,” Green said.