Gwil Sainsbury of alt-J on what it's like to be in one of the hottest bands going right now
With prime slots at this year's Coachella and millions of YouTube views, alt-J is one of the hottest emerging acts in the country right now. Touring in support of its latest effort, The Lateness of the Hour, the U.K.-based folk-rock quartet is due to play a sold-out show at the Bluebird this week, which should be an absolutely rare treat for those who already have tickets. This fall, when the outfit returns, it is slated to perform within the much larger confines of the Fillmore. So this show is certain to be one to remember. Continue on for our chat with guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury.
Westword: Where are you on tour right now?
Gwil Sainsbury: We just finished filming for [Conan O'Brien] for tonight. It's out in here L.A .at Warner Brothers studios at this major complex.
When is that going to be on TV? How did that come about?
I think it's on tonight. It's a bit weird, actually. We haven't met Conan because it's been an early pre-record, so he hasn't been here. It's not like doing TV in the U.K., like we've done before -- I haven't met [Conan] since he hasn't been around. There are just a bunch of plastic models of his head. It's pretty cool.
I actually quite like Conan, and I think he's one of the best chat-show people. It's pretty cool to do. I think a lot of my American friends think it's a big, big deal, but it's kind of like doing any sort of TV: When you get there you sort of realize that none of the set is as nice as you think it is. It looks nice on camera, but it's not the reality.
It seems like "Breezeblocks" and "Tesselate" seem to be doing really well as singles. Was that planned for you as a band, or did it catch you by surprise?
I think it caught us completely by surprise. It's such a hard thing to predict how you will do. We are not on a major label in the U.K. or anything. We come from a very small, indie label background where there are not loads of money to push stuff. You put out a record and might not get a response. Our response by the general public seems a bit overwhelming. I think music videos help a lot with that. That's how people are consuming much of their music content. A lot of times I see it being posted on YouTube, and I think they are just interested in showing it. That helps a lot. Having that kind of content helps a lot.
When you were brainstorming for "Breezeblocks," specifically the imagery for it, was that a team effort, or how did that come about?
We used a website called Radar. If you have a video that you want to be made, or have music for a video, or you are a director and you have a feature film, you put up your idea and the budget, and you can then get this community for a response. It can be amateurs or professionals. We got in loads and loads and loads of directors who were interested. We selected this guy Ellis Bahl for "Breezeblocks." We don't really get involved with the creative process of the video, but we are in charge of commissioning.
Were you satisfied with the imagery portrayed the song.
I think so. I don't think it's necessary to have literal representation of our songs in the music videos of our songs. I think most of the time we have stayed pretty clear of literal translation. Most of the time music videos don't really have to do that because we are sort of in this MTV generation where music videos in the traditional sense of the artist being in it and looking at the camera.
I don't think people are really interested in that anymore. People watch them on YouTube. We don't want to be in the videos, but you still have to do them, obviously. It's a good opportunity to have a budget and pay it forward to someone else who can make something incredible. It's good because then they have free-reign with it, so it's more about having that power to create something interesting. It's a nice thing to do.
Similar to commissioning an artist for a site-specific piece?
How much is the group involved in the creation process, then?
[Joe Newman] sort of writes the lyrics and the main melody. Sometimes he'll come to us with a fully formed song that just needs our parts, and we add our parts, and maybe restructure it a little bit. Sometimes, it happens a completely different way, so there is no real standard way how we work as a group. Sometimes you just jam and a song will come out of jamming. The rest of us just jam it out with little discussion. We just tune it and how it sounds. Then you keep a certain section, or take it out. It's always over long periods of time.
Are there any songs that you enjoy playing more than others while on tour?
Definitely. I really enjoy playing "Taro" and "Bloodflood" live. Those are my two favorites to play. When you are touring a lot, I think it's the harder songs that you end up enjoy playing because they are harder.
With a hit song like "Breezeblocks," does it ever get old playing a hit single?
It's hard to get sick of a song you are playing hundreds of times if the audience reaction is overwhelming. That's what we've sort of found. It'd be a lot easier to get bored playing your album if you were playing to a semi-despondent crowd each time. I think our fans are quite fanatical. They get really into it.
How has it been bringing all of that over here to America?
Like I said, they are quite fanatical. It has something to do with being a band from another country. We've probably had the same sort of response that an American band in the UK would have. They think, "Oh, it's an American band!" I think it adds another layer of fandom to it. Maybe we are a bit more exotic or something. It's been a lot more -- not like The Beatles -- but occasionally you'll see someone in the crowd who is just in tears and is singing every word. That's pretty amazing. It's quite funny, but it's amazing.
You are just coming off the first week of Coachella, right?
Yes, but we are going back tonight, actually.
Is this your first sort of festival run?
No. Well, in America, yes. We played Austin City Limits last year, but in the U.K. and Europe, we did the whole festival season. This will technically be our second festival season, but we are doing a lot more here in America.
Is there a big different between our festival culture and what's going on over in Europe?
Yes. I think with Coachella we were all pretty shocked at how organized and nice and luxurious it was. We are used to having festivals and having it be practical with food and rain jackets. With Coachella, it's so much nicer. There is also this L.A. element of glamor. It seems like all the girls especially are making a huge amount of effort, and that seems like the big difference. In the U.K., it's all about getting dirty and not worrying what you look like, and sort of surviving. Coachella was very pleasant. It made a lot more sense from my perspective as to how happy people are. Then again, it's in southern California, so it's constantly sunny and hot, so that speaks to it.
Do you think drug use plays a part in that happiness? Colorado and California recently decriminalized marijuana, and concerts are rife with it. Do you think that plays any part? What's your view based on where you're coming from?
I think if we are at a festival, or venue, people seem to smoke weed regardless. Every time we go out on stage, we get hit with a big cloud. I find it kind of amusing seeing people on Molly at our show. We don't really have these hard songs -- maybe "Breezeblocks" and "Fitzpleasure" -- that you can really freak out to, so that's always quite funny.
When you see someone chewing their face off in the crowd and having a great time, that's interesting. That's what happens at music festivals and shows. They go to have an intense experience, and sometimes that involves being on drugs. I think Coachella is extremely well developed. I think in the U.K., it's just more underground but easily as much accepted, but perhaps not talked about as much.
Will you be having any free time while you're here, or just touring?
No, not at all. The way touring works, as far as I can tell, is that if you have a day off, it's not just bad for you, it's bad for the spreadsheet. If you have a day off on tour, not only do you not have income for those days, but you are paying your whole crew to have those days. It's quite boring, but it really comes down to the spreadsheet and how the numbers add up.
If you are losing money by having too many days off, it doesn't make sense. We had a day off last week as we were coming from Portland, and we had a day at the lake where we hired two patio boats, which seem to be kind of like spring break boats. When it's there, you have to take advantage of it, but it's rare.
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