The British band ?, which formed in 2007, released their first album earlier this year. You may be wondering, “What kind of a band name is ??” It’s actually the Greek letter “delta,” and their name is pronounced Alt-J (‘Alt-J’ being the command to achieve the delta symbol on a Mac computer). It’s like Prince’s “Love Symbol” if he were more computer savvy.
The name has more meaning, though. Band member Gwil Sainsbury said, “In mathematical equations it’s used to show change,” and the band’s name came at a turning point in their lives.
The band is made up of Joe Newman on guitar and vocals, Sainsbury on guitar and bass, Gus Unger-Hamilton on keyboards and Thom Green on drums. Like many bands they met at college, Leeds University to be exact, with Unger-Hamilton majoring in English literature and the other three in fine art.
In their second year at Leeds, Newman played Sainsbury some of the music he’d made, inspired by his guitar-playing dad and hallucinogens, and the two began recording in their dorm rooms using Garageband. Green and Unger-Hamilton joined the two soon after.
The first name the four decided upon was Daljit Dhaliwal, before changing it to Films. They played around town for a couple years, developing a sound that blended heavy synth, folk melodies and tight harmonies. They eventually dropped the moniker Films and went with Alt-J (?). After graduating from Leeds, the group moved to Cambridge.
In 2011, Alt-J (?) released their first EP, “?,” which featured four songs,“Breezeblocks,” Hand-Made,” Matilda” and “Tessellate,” all of which would later be featured on their debut LP. Later that year, a 7 inch single featuring “Bloodfood” and “Tessellate” was released by Loud and Quiet.
Through the U.K. record label Infectious Music, Alt-J (?) released their debut LP “An Awesome Wave” May 25. Produced by Charlie Andrew, who also produced the band’s EP, the album expanded upon their sound. The mix of synth and folk was highlighted, and many journalists, notably NME’s Jenny Stevens who gave the album an eight out of ten, took notice.
“The charm of Alt-J’s musical scatterbrain,” Stevens wrote, “is that it works. On the surface, this is smart alt-pop, but Alt-J have messed with the formula just enough to make this a brilliantly disquieting debut.”
The album’s overall reception has been positive. “An Awesome Wave” received a 72 out of 100 on Metacritic, and Alt-J (?) were also one of twelve bands to receive the 2012 Mercury Music Prize (the others included Django Django, Michael Kiwanuka and The Maccabees).
Easily the most fascinating song Alt-J (?) has released is “Matilda.” It seems to be written about a scene in a film that I personally adore, “The Professional” (specifically the confrontation between Leon and Stansfield). There are film references throughout the album, but “Matilda” has the most obvious references. The chorus is even lifted from a line in the film, “This is from Matilda.”
Along with being critically acclaimed, Alt-J (?) have also had commercial success in the U.K. “An Awesome Wave” peaked at 19 on the U.K. Albums Chart, while “Breezeblocks” went to No. 75 on the Singles Chart. Their success in the U.S. has been limited, though.
The band is hoping to change that. They started an American tour in August, which is still going. Along with going on tour with Grouplove at the end of September, Alt-J (?) is coming to the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor Sept. 20. If you’re interested in indie-pop with touches of electronica and folk or just feel like expanding your musical horizons, check them out.