Alt-J: Great white hope or great white hype?

Mercury Music Prize nominees Alt-J may be one of the most hyped British acts in some time, but they’d prefer to be considered underdogs, writes TOM MANN.

Mercury Music Prize favourites and “new Radiohead” contenders Alt-J sold out their two-date Australian tour in just three minutes. That’s not enough time to listen to their single ‘Breezeblocks’ all the way through and no way near long enough to explain their ridiculous name to a stranger.

But although there was some talk of moving to slightly larger venues – they played Sydney’s 500-capacity Oxford Art Factory and Melbourne’s 300-capacity Ding Dong Lounge over the weekend – there was hardly any danger of the venues being upgraded, or extra dates being added. Nothing builds expectation and hype like a quick sell out, and fans left begging for tickets will be all the more eager to buy tickets for a return visit.

The ploy of booking a hyped act into small venue and then bringing them back for a return tour has become a textbook marketing move. Splendour made it work for Foster the People last year, and were so successful deploying the tactic again with Lana Del Rey that she didn’t even have to show up for her pre-tour hype dates this year to create a buzz. Big Day Out talent Gary Clark Jr came over for a few low-key shows last month, and Future seemingly timed its line-up announcement to coincide with K-pop maestro Psy’s whirlwind promotional visit. It was “like being at Woodstock,” remarked one particularly excitable attendee. Future are also planning a one-off date for another act, Ellie Goulding, in November. Alt-J will be back in February, but you won’t be able to see them anywhere but Laneway. No sideshows.

On Saturday night the promotional hype machine pulled into Melbourne’s recently refurbished Ding Dong Lounge. The place was crammed with the few hundred Alt-J fans who had managed to pounce on tickets for the gig, and the record label was keen to make sure there was a healthy media contingent on hand to witness it all. A couple journos flew in from New Zealand, and the promise of a bar tab was good enough to lure in the local writers, too. There was even a chance for the assembled media to have a post gig drink with the band and dismiss the idea they’re nothing but a crew of fine arts majors who lurk backstage reading obscure Russian literature while on tour.

Sticking to their road-tested set, Alt-J open with the same run of tracks that lead the way on the album – an intro, an interlude and then ‘Tessellate’ – quickly proving they can recreate the album’s intricate sound on stage. Joe Newman employs his full range of distinctive vocal effects – from boys choir harmonics to barely intelligible murmurs that crack into nasal vowel sounds, bringing an album that can at times feel overwrought to life. He’s not the central focus though, with each member integral to the precise, incredibly clean sound. There are no passengers here and, as the band explained in interview with FL the day before, “every part is considered” and it’s only in there because we think it should be there … we have to be able to justify every part of a song.”

Although the live mash-up of Dr Dre’s ‘Forget About Dre’ and Kylie’s ‘Slow’ struggles to be more than a mid-set novelty, the band delivered on the hype. (I swear that’s not just the free drinks talking.) Although Alt-J are hardly a “sing-a-long” band, somehow half the crowd knew all the lyrics and echoed back every word. Triangulated fingers are thrown into the air like the world’s whitest gang sign – Leeds University Fine Arts posse represent! – and a few girls even faint with excitement. (Although to be fair that might not have just been giddy fandom, it was incredibly hot.)

Alt-J are one damn fine live band. Now they just need to find a way to negotiate the hype and the inevitable backlash before they return for Laneway in February.

Following their Sydney gig and a night of after-party drinking with Mumford and Sons, The Black Keys, Willy Mason and Edward Sharpe, Alt-J had a “day off” (read: day of media commitments) to attend to. FL caught up with drummer Tom Green and guitarist Gwil Sainsbury at their hotel in Melbourne to talk about the tour, the hype and the insult of being compared to Radiohead.

Click through to the next page for the interview

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