Most people's first listen to Alt-J was like their first taste of alcohol: unpleasant, then interesting and eventually intoxicating. The band's lyrics and unusual sound resemble a William Blake print with its stark arches and angles and its often-grim depictions of rapture. Though Blake's genius can be credited to madness, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton describes his band's success as "a conscious lack of effort to sound like anything else." That description in itself is inebriating.
Alt-J was cryptic from the beginning. Its name is meant to signify the delta sign (when you press "alt-j" on a Mac, you get ?), which stands for uncertainty in quantum mechanics. Its lyrics were equally unclear. Some said "Fitzpleasure" was an ode to feminism, while others claimed it depicted rape. Some said "Tessellate" referred to a threesome, while others said it just implied a love triangle.
"I think Joe [Newman, lead vocalist], who writes the lyrics, gets bothered by the people asking about song interpretations," Unger-Hamilton says. "Because everything to be explained about the song exists within the song, and he doesn't like being called upon to explain their meanings."
Alt-J's uncertainty and disparities were intriguing and the longer we listened to them the tipsier we felt. By the end of An Awesome Wave, the band's debut album, we knew we'd discovered something good, something special to be shared with a select few others who'd appreciate the elixir. This fantasy would soon shatter.
With An Awesome Wave as its engine and its melodic meanderings as fuel, Alt-J's path to stardom was almost perfectly vertical. One week, our music-blogging buddy played us "Breezeblocks"; the next week, some sorority girl was skipping down the street, singing along as Alt-J poured from her earbuds. Within months, Alt-J felt used, stolen by people who usually preferred Drake or David Guetta. It was the same old story of lost novelty that made many fans think the band had sold out.
"As a band, we didn't try to sound like anything in particular," Unger-Hamilton says. "We didn't limit ourselves, and that's definitely had an effect on why we sound the way we do."
But through the hype, Alt-J didn't change much. It released This Is All Yours one year ago to positive reviews from old fans (begrudgingly) and new. Though not a rehash of An Awesome Wave, the sophomore album kept the narrative flairs and slow-build instrumentals that caused us to first fall for the band. It even maintained the coded sexual angle of some of its songs. "A lot of people thought 'Left Hand Free' was about masturbating," Unger-Hamilton says.
What did change was the band's intimacy with fans, which Alt-J (or its label) seems to yearn for. Earlier this month, 500 cinemas around the United States played Artists Den Presents Alt-J — an 80-minute film of the band's live concert for the relatively small crowd of 600. "It's quite a novelty for us to play a venue of that size now," says Unger-Hamilton. Today, he and his bandmates tend to find themselves on festival stages and in big arenas. But the keyboardist has a soft spot for intimate gigs: "Often in a small place, you can see the crowd better, and you're closer to them, and you can focus on one person. In an arena, it's useless to identify any particular individual. So you almost end up playing as if there's nobody there."
Still, Unger-Hamilton confronts insecurities when the small-venue lights reveal his audience. "I get more nervous playing a room with a couple of hundred people than I do playing in a big arena," he admits. "In a small room, I'm more aware of each individual person and what they're thinking about, whereas when you're playing in front of 20,000 people, it's quite easy to just switch off and just see a massive crowd."
Unger-Hamilton and the rest of Alt-J won't have to deal with too much crowd intimacy at Bayfront Park, with its airy outdoor amphitheater hovering at a capacity of around 10,000. But just in case, Unger-Hamilton has his own game plan for staying focused onstage.
"Concentrating on not making mistakes is the best way for me to beat nerves... If I make sure I don't make mistakes, then I feel like I have nothing to be nervous about."
With San Fermin. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 1, at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-358-7550; bayfrontparkmiami.com. Tickets cost $35 to $65 plus fees via livenation.com.