Kitchen sink sounds pan out for the unlikeliest stars of 2012

Leeds band ALT-J.  Photo: Danny Payne
Leeds band ALT-J. Photo: Danny Payne
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The drummer uses a saucepan and the singer is prone to falsetto yelps but, says Mark Butler, ALT-J might yet be the left-field hit of the year.

From their unusual name to their extraordinary genre-splicing music – and the fact that their drummer uses a saucepan instead of a cymbal, if there’s one word that defines fast-rising band ALT-J it’s ‘unconventional’.

The saucepan-bashing drummer in question, Yorkshireman Thom Green, seems as bemused as anybody that his band are set to be 2012’s unlikeliest breakthrough act.

“It feels very strange to hear our music on Radio 1,” he admits. “And I don’t always understand how it’s happened. It makes us proud because we’ve worked so hard to get to this point, but we can’t actually believe we’re doing this full-time, and that we’ve recorded an album. In a way, it still feels weird being on stage.”

Perhaps that’s unsurprising when you consider that the four former Leeds University students never even had ambitions to play live, let alone break into the big-time. But though ALT-J’s music is undeniably strange – and almost shockingly hard to define – it is also strikingly beautiful, and surprisingly accessible.

Mixing alternative-folk, art-rock and electronica, the band appear to have pulled off that near-impossible trick of producing songs that are staggeringly different from the norm, but also instantly enjoyable. Frontman Joe Newman’s unconventional vocals, with their falsetto yelps and off-kilter emphasis, combine perfectly with the warm ripple of acoustic guitars. Gorgeous vocal harmonies and uplifting melodies sit happily alongside experimental bursts of growling synth.

“It’s about mixing the simple and the intricate,” explains Green. “We like to create inspiring music, but we manage to keep it very minimal – like using acoustic guitars rather than tons of effects pedals.

“Our only plan is to do something different. We deliberately make things as interesting as we can – but we’ve never sat down and said, ‘We want to sound like this’. It’s always, ‘Let’s see what weird sounds we can make’.

Many of ALT-J’s more eccentric touches evolved from typical student debacles. Green, for example, started using saucepans instead of cymbals not because of any pretentious leanings, but simply because he couldn’t fit a full drum kit into the bedroom where they started practicing.

“It ended up defining my drumming style,” he laughs. “Even now I still use a saucepan when recording and performing. I don’t look at it as a pan anymore.”

At first, the band were content to write tracks and play together away from prying eyes, but after an initial gig at a house party proved a phenomenal success, interest in the embryonic group began to grow. Eventually they started travelling to London for shows, where they soon attracted the attention of music industry movers and shakers.

“It was surreal,” says Green. “People we’d never heard of were coming up to Leeds and watching us practice in our basement – people who, it turned out, had managed really big bands.”

They eventually signed with independent label Infectious Music and, shortly after graduating, relocated to Cambridge to be nearer their management in London. However, ALT-J will soon be back in Yorkshire for May’s Live At Leeds event, and Green is more than looking forward to the occasion.

“We love coming back to Leeds. The place means a lot to us. There are so many great venues and places – like Nation Of Shopkeepers and Brudenell Social Club – and being from Yorkshire myself it’s good to be back on home turf.”

The drummer admits that he and his fellow bandmates are “quietly nervous” about the fortunes of their forthcoming debut album. But with critics lavishing praise on their unusual stylings, it seems likely that such concern will be unfounded. Green certainly agrees that mainstream music could do with an injection of avant-garde.

“It really winds me up sometimes when I hear so many bands doing exactly the same thing as each other,” he says. “I think modern music needs a bit of a shake-up.”

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Meeting of minds for created a strange new sound

The atypical quartet, who are already being compared to Wild Beasts and Radiohead, came together while at Leeds University. Green, originally from Harrogate, was on the Fine Art course with Newman and guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury, and they soon befriended keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, who was studying English Literature.

According to Green, it really was a meeting of minds.

“Joe and Gwil played me some tracks they’d been working on, and I’d never heard anything like it. I was into anything new and interesting, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to be involved with this’.”