Interview - Alt-J

As recently as 2010, Alt-J were still making music in their dorm rooms while attending the University of Leeds. Now, thanks to the staggering success of their 2012 debut album ‘An Awesome Wave', the band have a Mercury Prize under their belt and a rapidly growing fan base that includes Tilda Swinton among its members. During a break before the band's recent show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, drummer Thom Green sat down with Sophie Luo for a chat about meeting Skrillex at Coachella, Kurt Cobain holograms, and much more....

Since you're from Cambridge, does it feel very different playing a hometown show?

It does. Well, it feels strange. I feel more like an outsider since coming back. Obviously I've lived here, so I have my own little personal connections to things, but now it's kind of like I'm visiting for work, which is strange.

Do you get stopped or recognised often in Cambridge?

Well, I haven't been back for a while, so, you know... no.

You're about to embark on a massive tour for festival season. What are the best and worst parts about touring?

Well, there are a few things. Improving as a musician. I think I'm a hundred times better a drummer than I was two years ago, and that's really exciting. I love playing the drums more now than I ever have before. Just the opportunities to meet other people - you get to meet your idols sometimes.

Such as?...

He's not my idol, but I look up to him a lot. I met Skrillex at Coachella. That completely blew my mind. He watched our show from the side of the stage and then came over and said hello afterwards. We ended up hanging out and watching Knife Party with him. It was just like, "this is absurd." I love dubstep - that's what I'm all about at the moment, and I couldn't believe it. Skrillex is one of the most famous people in music, and he couldn't walk more than three metres without somebody wanting a photo. But he did it! He's one of the nicest people I've ever met. He met them, he got their names, he remembered everybody. So yeah, meeting people like that, and getting to see places I would never get the opportunity to go to, like most of America, Australia and various places in Europe.

What's the most surreal thing that's happened to you since you won the Mercury's?

You find yourself in situations with certain people. Like, Tilda Swinton came to see us in New York. She came backstage and all of us were talking to Tilda Swinton. We got a photo and everything, and she asked for the photo. That kind of thing. Or I've just got a drum endorsement from Tama. I've always wanted to use one of their kits, but they're really expensive - I could never afford it. And then they offered me a worldwide endorsement, which is insane. I've just sent off all my specs for my new kit and I'm on their artist roster. They just have the best drummers in the world. It's crazy. It's like a childhood dream. Just... weird. But it's almost like I don't deserve it. I don't know why they've done it.

I mean, you're a pretty great drummer...

I know that I'm not shit, you know what I mean? But you can never relate to that kind of thing. It's just a goal I've managed to achieve, and a big goal as well.

Is a second album currently in the works?

It is, yeah. It's hard at the moment because we're touring so much. It's kind of ironic - we don't actually get that much time together to write. For example, like today, you wake up on the bus, you feel pretty tired, it takes you a while to wake up and shower, you have a little personal time. You're never in the mindset to just start writing together. You might want to go out and see the place you're in, see family, that sort of thing. But I make a lot of music on my laptop; I do remixes and I'm always making music. Joe is the same - he's got a huge imagination, so he's always putting things down, whether it's on his guitar or just lyrics. So we are writing, but it's not been modelled into anything Alt-J just yet. October is when we finish touring, so we're going to just do the album then. I'm hoping it will get out next year. First half of next year, hopefully.

Can you give us a rundown of Alt-J's musical tastes?

I listen to a lot of bass music, like dubstep. I grew up listening to metal; I was in a metal band. We were terrible but we looked cool. Joe likes individual tracks. He doesn't really actively seek out music, I don't think. He likes Laura Marling a lot, actually - I think he quite likes songwriters. Gus likes a lot of indie: Foals, Hot Chip, that kind of thing. He also likes a lot of early music, which I hate. Just doesn't do anything for me. Gwil ... Gwil's weird. Gwil, as far as I can tell, doesn't actually listen to that much music. I couldn't tell you. He likes Pink Floyd, I know that.

How do you come up with the concepts for your music videos, which are often bizarre?

It's hard because I don't particularly like working on music videos. I can't see how you can really represent sound with a video as such. Especially nowadays, it's just pretty much going on Youtube for a company to track. But with ‘Breezeblocks', for example, there's a website called Radar, and you upload a track that you want a video to be made for and a brief and then people bid on it. I think for ‘Breezeblocks' we had 60 different which we went through. The one that we liked was by a guy called Ellis from Brooklyn, and it was just one page. Very brief and to the point. Some people would send like 20 pages of ideas, and it was just too much. But he seemed like he knew what he was doing, so we gave it to him. Obviously we couldn't be there , but we Skype'd with him quite a lot.

To me, a video's a video. I just don't have that connection with music videos too much. I would prefer to have something that was completely abstract. That's why we're not in videos, because we don't need to represent the music with us. I think if you try and match the track with the video, it just doesn't work.

If you could see any artist or band perform, who would it be?

Probably Nirvana. Yeah. Definitely. I've not seen Radiohead play, but I can pretty much imagine what it'd be like, I think. Deftones are one of my favourite bands as well, and I've not actually seen them play, which is weird because I've been a fan of them since their first album. But then... I'd rather see Nirvana, you know. I would love to see Kurt Cobain performing. That would be incredible. I just hope - you know they did this hologram?

With Tupac?

Yeah. I just fucking pray to God that they don't do that. They can't do that. He would never want that in a million years. I'd be distraught.

What four items would Alt-J bring along if stranded on a desert island?

We'd probably take a ball. Just a ball. Because, you know... it's entertaining. An acoustic guitar, because you can use an acoustic guitar as a drum. Could we have a laptop with the internet? That'd be brilliant. And then... maybe like a box. Just so if you needed to, you could go sit in a box. To be away from the others. That'd be ideal.

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