a group of English and fine arts students at Leeds University came together to form an art-rock, for lack of a better genre descriptor, band. When they graduated, the guys (Gwil Sainsbury, Joe Newman, Thom Green, and Gus Unger-Hamilton) moved to Cambridge and really got down to it, signing with Infectious Records and releasing an EP that would, eventually, evolve into their fairly stunning debut album, An Awesome Wave. Somewhere between “Tessellate” and “Fitzpleasure,” a sound emerged that was equal parts chiming synths, edgy guitars, and stuttering percussion, topped off by Newman’s distinctive timbre and tack.
And so began the world’s fascination with ∆ — (or, as it’s pronounced, alt-J). Even Miley Cyrus was a fan, blasting “Fitzpleasure” during intermission at her shows. Despite — or, perhaps, because of — the band’s initial success, including the 2012 Mercury Prize, Sainsbury departed the group early last year. The remaining trio then hunkered down and carried on, issuing the equally impressive This All Is Yours last Fall. Bringing it all back around, one of the album’s singles, “Hunger of the Pine,” includes a surprisingly cool Cyrus sample. It’s the perfect reminder to never put ∆ in a box. It just won’t fit.
A lot of artists think being different necessarily means being good, but it doesn’t. You guys manage both, though. Is that because your version of “different” is authentic to who you are rather than contrived?
Yeah, I guess so. I think we are trying to be different, but I think we don’t really have that in the manifesto in the band so that freedom results in music that is a bit unusual.
Obviously, Joe’s voice is unique, but there’s something about the sound that you create as a group that sets you apart. Does having a style that is both specific and malleable limit or open up what you guys can do?
It definitely opens it up, I think. We don’t feel pressure to sound a certain way. And I don’t think our band is expected to sound a certain way. That’s a really good thing. It means that we can do what we want, most of the time.
The success of both albums is an obvious validation — vindication, even — for making the kind of music you want to make, versus the label thinks will sell.
Yeah, essentially. We were never out to prove anything. It wasn’t like we wanted to change music or prove something. But, certainly, it’s nice to feel that trust people put in us. Because we didn’t find it easy to get a record deal. In that sense, it’s pleasing to be like, “Yeah. Cool. We were right.” Because we thought we were quite good, but it was hard to convince people to take the plunge with us and sign us. Eventually, we signed to a small, indie label in the UK and things worked out really well. So that’s definitely pleasing. But it’s not really a vindication because there was nothing to prove in the first place, I guess.
Gotcha. Well, does it inspire you to keep pushing the boundaries to see how far you can take it?
Definitely. It inspires us to maybe not feel limited. We just have the limits of the tour, and that’s a good thing.
I read something from Joe saying that sometimes you guys spend years getting a song right. Does such an intense pursuit of perfection ever actually get in the way of the creative process?
No, I don’t think so. No. I think it’s nice to feel like we know what’s best for a song. So we’ll never… we don’t like to do what we’re told by people. We do things our own way. If anything, it makes us more creative because we know we can do it ourselves. If that answers your question, I don’t know. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah. So you kind of set things aside and let them marinate until they are ready…
Yeah. We never rush a song. There were a couple of songs, like “Every Other Freckle” and “The Gospel of John Hurt,” that were kind of half-written before the first album, but they weren’t ready and we knew they needed more time. So we didn’t rush them onto the first album even though they were going to be great songs. We just thought we’d work with them in the future because that’s okay. We’re looking at the big picture, I think.
Sure. Speaking of the big picture… Your records are vibey enough that they can be thoroughly enjoyed at a superficial level just as really great background music. But there’s so much more there, if people dig a little deeper. Is that enough for you — the surface listening? Or would you really encourage people to dive in?
I don’t think we ever want to prescribe how people want to listen to our music. Certainly, I think we appreciate when people listen to our music as a whole album rather than selecting certain songs. But, at the end of the day, how people want to consume our music, that’s up to them. We’re satisfied, creatively, with what we do. So, if people want to consume it in a certain way, that’s fine. If people want to really get into it, that’s also great. I think there’s a lot there, if people want to really dive into the lyrics. But it doesn’t matter to us too much.
Your satisfaction is in the making of it and, beyond that, it’s…
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. I mean, sometimes our fans surprise us with their interpretations of a song that we never thought of. That stuff is really cool.
The trio of “Nara” songs on this album, and the interludes on the first album… those sorts of through-threads… that’s such an interesting concept. And it’s rare, like you said, to listen to an album all the way through in this single-focused playlist generation. Are those threads a subtle cue, then, that your albums are meant to be digested as a whole?
Yeah, I think it might be. We thought pretty hard about the structure of the album, the order of the songs on it. Definitely. Equally, it’s quite nice to have those three songs as a trio so, in that sense, maybe you should play around with it. Maybe just isolate those three songs and play them in a row. Who knows?
The Nara EP.
Now, maybe it’s different in the UK, but in the States, there’s a weird irony that kids who are into music are considered nerds and, yet, rock stars are cool. How did a group of university nerds studying Fine Art make the leap to rock stars touring the world? How’d that go for you?
Ha! Well, I think we never really felt very comfortable with the band’s identity as a rock band because we never really thought about the image of the band at all. People, then, kind of come with, “Are you guys norm-core? Are you mash-rock?” And they throw these labels out. And we’re… We’re nothing. We’re none of those things. We’re just who we are. We’re quite normal people making music together. I think people always try to put other people in pigeonholes and categorize them. I guess it sets their minds at ease or something. But we’re just happy as who we are and it doesn’t matter to us too much. We haven’t really striven to have a band identity.
Just “musicians” as a kind of generic thing.
Yeah, maybe. Maybe “musicians.” Maybe not “musicians.” Who knows? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Right. I read somewhere that the Spice Girls were a childhood crush for Joe.
Yeah. [Laughs]
[Laughs] It’s weird to me to think of the Spice Girls and alt-J in the same breath. But the same goes for thinking of Miley Cyrus and alt-J in the same breath. Are there other influences or affiliations might surprise us?
Mmmm. I think we don’t talk about our influences… even to each other. We all come from different musical backgrounds. Thom grew up on heavy metal and grunge. I grew up in a classical music environment. And Joe grew up, mostly, listening to music through his dad, so he’s got some kind of soulful, low-key Americana stuff. They are all things that maybe you wouldn’t think of when you think of our music. But, when you put them all together, you sort of come up with alt-J.

When taken together, it sort of makes sense… in a weird way.
Yeah. Yeah.
Obviously, you guys are a band of the digital age and, yet, mp3s seem like a slap in the face to such huge productions as yours. Is that a hard thing to stomach because you guys put so much attention and effort into your production? Maybe this goes back to how you can’t control the listening…
Yeah, we can’t control it. I think some musicians get too bogged down in the whole mp3 thing — like Neil Young — and this kind of music quality thing. I grew up listening to mp3s, mostly. None of us are massive vinyl geeks or anything. I think our music stands up whether you’re listening to it on an mp3 or a phone. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t think we’re very preoccupied with that whole question, actually.
Another thought on how complex your music is… How much trial and error goes into translating the music into a live performance?
Getting stuff ready for live is certainly a struggle. We’ve got to try to make these big, rich songs work on stage. But we have really good technicians working with us and we spent a lot of time getting this ready to play live. I think we’ve sort of got it down now. But, definitely, we have to concentrate hard on stage. There’s not a lot of room for jumping around and messing about on stage. We’ve all got to concentrate pretty hard.
Right. Okay, last question… It seems like you guys have single-handedly brought “tessellate” into the popular lexicon. World domination is surely next, yeah?
[Laughs] Thanks! Yeah, you know, all colonization starts with language.
This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.