Alt J ready for Laneway show

ALT J: The Mercury Prize winners are preparing for their first New Zealand show.
ALT J: The Mercury Prize winners are preparing for their first New Zealand show.

This time last year, almost no-one knew who Alt J were. But 12 months is a long time in the music industry, and in 2013 the British four-piece are shooting down calls they are the "next Radiohead".

"It's been a very surreal time," guitarist and bassist Gwil Sainsbury says, ahead of the band's first New Zealand show at St Jerome's Laneway Festival.

Alt J's debut album, An Awesome Wave, has wowed critics and audiences alike since it was released in the middle of 2012, earning them praise as the most exciting band of the year and then that comparison with Radiohead (the band have said that's "premature").  

But the pinnacle of it all was winning the prestigious Mercury Prize last year.

It shouldn't have been a surprise - Alt J was tipped as the bookies' favourites early on in the race, ahead of Field Music, Richard Hawley and fellow Laneway performer Jessie Ware. But Sainsbury still had trouble believing it.

"It's pretty dumb, isn't it? I wish I could go into one of the bookmakers' brainstorming sessions because I have no idea how it happened [being named favourites]. I really don't get it."

Despite the shock, the accolade means the world to Sainsbury and his band mates.

"It's a massive deal to us. Even without being in a band, the Mercury Prize was a big deal to me. We were thinking maybe, maybe there was a chance we could get a nomination. But it's is a pretty big thing for a band with just one album."

The band formed at Leeds University in 2007 as a way to keep the four members - Sainsbury, singer and guitarist Joe Newman, keyboard player Gus Unger-Hamilton and Thom Green (drums) - entertained between assignments.

"We wanted to do our degrees, and at that point it was just a hobby. Like how someone might join a Warhammer [gaming] society. It wasn't like 'we're going to be in a band and conquer the world'. Instead of going on nights out, we'd go to one of our houses and we'd play in our bedrooms, quite quietly so not to piss anybody off. And that's how we hung out as friends," said Sainsbury.

Hanging out eventually became "crafting and making something complete", and despite Sainsbury leaving the band for a year to study at the University of California, in Berkeley, the album finally found its way into the world.

People in the music industry are often searching for new labels to pin on, and describe up-and-coming musicians. Alt J were no different, being tagged with descriptions like folk-step, jump-folk.

Sainsbury and his band mates try to avoid self-diagnosing their sound, instead relying on others to create terms they can then try to discard.

"Otherwise you end up putting yourself in a box, and that should be the job of the critic. Then you whine about being put in a box, and then when you to try and break down the box you do something rubbish."

But Sainsbury is adamant the band won't be rushed into creating a new album that could disappoint.

"This album, as a band, took four years. And so if it takes four or five years more to make another one, it doesn't bother me. I know fans just want to hear the next one straight away, but there is nothing worse than a band you really like making an album you love, then they just rush out a second album and it's so bad. You lose your love of that artist forever."


WHEN: January 28

WHERE: St Jerome's Laneway Festival at Silo Park

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