Joe Newman of alt-J, crash landing on Earth. Photo: Esther Meroño
You know how NASA supposedly transmits tunes and historical monologues into space for any aliens who might hear it and make contact? alt-J's music is what I imagine extraterrestrials would compose in response to the music they've been listening to our satellites spew for the past couple of decades, as a gift and an offer to communicate. I mean that in the best way possible––alt-J are genreless, unique, refreshing––all of the adjectives used over the last five years by reviewers for bands that were none of those things. As an English (cough, bullshit, cough) degree holder, I've been taught both that there are no new ideas, and that every mimic, cover, remake and repetition of an original thought is new in each moment its performed or written. Which sentiment is correct largely depends on how well you can argue them in a minumum 1200-word essay, but fortunately, neither one applies to alt-J, and I care even less about my grade now than I did in college, so you're being spared. alt-J have seemingly foraged their way through generations' worth of music catalogues as far back and east as traditional Indochina-inspired fillers and as far forward and west as dubstep breakdowns. They've gathered it all, made up a new language to sing over it (all of you singing along absolutely looked up the lyrics) and somehow made it accessible enough for a giant venue like the Complex in Salt Lake to fill to the brim, and venues across the United States to sell-out well in advance.
I was introduced to alt-J when a friend added it to a party playlist. If a song catches my attention in the midst of party chaos with a drink in my hand, I know it's going to end up a favorite. I played their debut album from last year, An Awesome Wave, over and over until I lucked out on seeing them headline OVER the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at SXSW in Austin this year. It was 1am, I'd been on my feet at shows for over 12 hours at this point, Stubbs had been impossible to get into all day and I'd heard most of the YYY's set while I stood in line. Still, I inched forward and forgot my aching feet for an entire hour as I swayed and bobbed along with the quartet.
I was especially looking forward to the Salt Lake show, which was originally scheduled for early April at Urban Lounge, because of the intimate setting versus the large, outdoor amphitheater in Austin. As their U.S. tour began to sell out (I'm sure the fact they ended up booked for both weekends of Coachella didn't help much), the Salt Lake performance was moved to the large and spacious building, aka The Complex, on April 22, Earth Day. Other than the fact that large, indoor venues transformed into music halls as an afterthought always seem sterile and impersonal to me, sound is usually a big issue as well. By the time alt_J stepped onstage, though, the venue had filled in and I was looking forward to having a little more space around me than I would have at Urban (though I somehow still ended up with a large, smelly, altered man jamming his elbows in my chest).
Wildcat! Wildcat! was the only opener of the night, and I knew nothing about them, nor am I interested to do much research outside of a quick Facebook search after seeing them play. They're from LA, which doesn't surprise me at all, because the only art that comes out of that scorched earth is regurgitated and over-hyped. The band was good, no doubt, but I was there to listen to weird alien music, not a band that sounds like MGMT, Vampire Weekend and Phoenix (basically every band that was super popular five years ago) had a three-way and came out of it as one rat king.
Judging (oh, was I judging) by the youthful and fashion schizophrenic crowd, alt-J had trailed a caravan of Coachella attendees with them from their two-weekend stint at the music festival. I thwarted them all and let the smoke from the smoke machine envelope me in the photo pit as the stage was prepped for the headliner. The backdrop to the stage was the same cracked and colorful album cover for An Awesome Wave, but set wide and tall, it looked more like a thick forest or even veins inside an alien cocoon––to keep with my ET theme. The four familiar musicians came out to a roar from the crowd, and even in the pit I could barely see them through the smoke and tunnel lights that swept over the stage. The effect was a great complement to the pulsating "Intro," which introduces each instrument in waves, starting with Gus Unger-Hamilton on keys, then guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury moved in with Thom Green on drums (can you tell these guys were named in the UK?), and over one-minute in, the nasally mumbo-jumbo of guitarist/vocalist Joe Newman started up.
Since the band only has one album that clocks in at 40 minutes, they played through their entire discography. "Tessellate" was a crowd favorite, which brought up the delta signs (alt-j = ∆) along with the lyrics, "Triangles are my favorite shape." I told you these guys are aliens. My favorites included "Breezeblocks," mostly for Newman's pitchy vocals and the fact it sounds like three songs in one. "Something Good" is another great one, though it's got a heavy dose of indie-folk guitar that immediately makes me imagine Mumford & Sons. "Fitzpatrick" brought with it a fresh whiff of lit spliffs and as SLUG writer Madelyn Boudreaux calls it: the hip hop heil. I really dig the echoey guitars in this one, though, especially when they drop an octave and start to sound like the duel scene in a spaghetti western.
The band remained in place for the most part, Sainsbury moving backwards into the darkness of the stage every once in a while, meeting Newman back there during lyric-less moments and returning to sway back and forth with his head drooped and hooded. They look like normal dudes. So normal, they're almost not cool enough to stand on stage––these are the nerds I would've hung out with in college. The singer for Wildcat! Wildcat! was wearing skinny jeans, a ponytail and an old captain's cap (LA, *eye roll*), but their music was run-of-the-mill indie rock. alt-J don't need fancy dance moves or hats––all of their creative energy is fed into their music, and it's better for it. Plus, their stage backdrop, bright and pulsing behind them, was entrancing enough that any more movement from the band would've been too much, especially for the altered among us.
alt-J left the stage faster than I could process the last song, but returned quickly for an encore once the applause continued, treating us with a subdued cover of College's "A Real Hero," which I was stoked on because the Drive soundtrack has been on my go-to playlist for over a year now. Newman explained that they had recently learned it, and had to tape a sheet of music or lyrics to the mic stand (See! They ARE aliens… he can't sing lyrics in English without reading them!). The night ended with another one of my favorites: "Taro." The song starts slow, but it's the longest track on the album and completely surprises you with a dancey, Indo-centric fill between the speaking-in-tongues and long, haunting "oooooohs."
The show was great, though some of the details of the music were lost into the rafters of the building, but I'm glad more people were able to see this talented band play live. They definitely deserve all of the recognition they've been getting lately, and I look forward to more alien music to connect with.
Check out more alt-J on their website, and you can actually watch their entire set at SXSW in March on NPR. I also recommend watching NPR's Tiny Desk concert with them playing "Tessellate."