It’s always great to see bands cross over when they really deserve it. And when Alt J won the Barclaycard Mercury Prize last year it catapulted them into the hearts of the public and made their dreamy synth-studded album, Awesome Wave, one of the essential records of 2012. Since then it’s fair to say they’ve been busy. But despite a hectic international tour schedule, we managed to catch up with Joe Newman, guitarist and vocalist, and Gwil Sainsbury, guitarist and bassist, for a chat about effects pedals, the future of the music industry and what they do when they (eventually) get a day off.
We should start by saying congratulations – are you bored of people constantly mentioning the Mercury Prize?
GS – Not really – it’s something that had such a big impact on us. When someone mentions it, I remember that it actually happened so it’s quite nice.
JN – It’s an expected question, but so far I don’t think we’re tired of it.
Where did your history with Roland and Boss start?
JN – My dad had a massive box of guitar knick-knackery filled with Boss pedals, so growing up I would naturally take from that box. We saved up and started working with a Roland Cube amp when the band began to get serious.
GS – For me, it probably started when I started learning guitar. I was about 17 when my brother started teaching me and I can’t remember exactly what he had. I think it was a tremolo, a chorus and a delay pedal. We had a lot of fun messing around with sounds, not even really playing guitar – just messing around with pedals. For a long time we didn’t really have money for stuff like that – we just had to acquire stuff slowly.
So it’s nice that you’re now in a position where you can access new effects – you’ve got some new pedals recently?
GS – Yeah. One of the things on the album was putting down these sounds that we’d made in the studio – but now we have to be able to recreate them live and work out how on earth we do that. We’ve got reverse delay on guitars and getting the right delay pedals is one of the most important parts on the pedal board.
[On the album] we used a Vox amp for tremolo effects and now we get those from pedals. We also use the acoustic simulator pedal, which really helps.
JN – I’m not a massive tech man when it comes to pedals. I strive for a warm, clean sound with a touch of reverb and maybe, if it’s needed, a tad of delay. I focus on really making my guitar sound simple and clear.
We brought in the G5 Stratocaster to show you. What were your initial thoughts when you saw that you could detune and make it sound like an acoustic at the touch of a button?
GS – It’s overwhelming what you can do – and it’s great to play around with. That sitar effect was really cool. Being able to drop down to D in a song is really helpful. You can see how it would be really useful for bands looking to make a record work live.
Where is the future of the music industry heading and how can young bands thrive?
GS – I think maybe it’s not so much about the future of music as it about the future of the internet and how that will be used.
JN – The internet has been a problem for the industry but the business is in the process of accepting and adapting. This means for the time being more 360 deals.
GS – As a band we’ve found that we don’t have a lot of cash for big campaigns so when our album came out it spread by word of mouth – and that was mainly over the internet. When we played shows in Australia and America we didn’t expect anyone to be there but then they were. I’d say as basic as it is, bands should learn how to use the internet to get their music out there. Stop trying to find ways to fund big campaigns, just use the internet to get the music out there. It’s more genuine and it seems to work better than a big advertising campaign.
What excites you on tour?
JN – Working alongside a team of dedicated crew, playing to the world and new fans… free stuff, all the cold meats and cheese one could wish for and the organised fights we set up between our crew and our fans…that last one isn’t true.
GS – I think we’ve been to places I never thought we would go to. Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore. I never thought we would be touring outside of the UK or Europe. We’ve been playing in Australia and we’ve had two days off in Brisbane so it’s like sort of half work, half holiday.
What did you do with your days off?
GS – Yesterday we went to Noosa, which is like a surfing Mecca. We didn’t go surfing though; we went swimming and got sunburned. Today we went to a koala sanctuary. I didn’t hold one though – there were too many wet wipes going around the photography areas. I knew I didn’t want to hold them.
They’ve got pretty sharp claws…
GS – Yeah, one of them scratched our tour manager. It was pretty nasty.
I was going to talk about the Bowie comeback – did you like the single?
JN – It definitely sounded like Bowie. I like it.
GS – I haven’t heard it. This is how isolated you can become on tour with regards to what’s going on
in the world – let alone music.
You’re signed to Infectious, along with These New Puritans, Temper Trap and Cloud Nothings. Do you feel part of a family or do you not really see them?
JN – There isn’t much of a bond and I haven’t met many of the bands we share a label with but I’ll naturally have their back in a knife fight or nightclub brawl.
GS – We sometimes hang out with the Temper Trap and they’re really nice guys. I really want to meet These New Puritans but I haven’t had the chance. Also, all the bands on Infectious’ roster are international artists so we’re always on tour, which makes it difficult to run into each other.
We want to ask both of you, what would be your three tips for new songwriters?
GS – Keep your receipts. Don’t worry about what else is going on – just keep doing your own thing. Don’t play a London show as an unsigned artist without knowing you’re ready to come out and be judged.
JN – Write about what interests you. Have patience. Record everything and return to it regularly and stick all the best bits together.
What song do you wish you’d written?
GS – I don’t know about written but for a long time I’ve always wanted to be involved in Foals, and their track Two Steps Twice. It’s just one of those bands I’d love to be in, to play that song once.
JN – Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper.
You mentioned that the album was meant to be fluid and you want it be a journey. Is this the case for future records?
GS – Not necessarily. I feel this is something people want. I notice when I listen to new albums that it doesn’t feel like one body of work and more a collection of different tangents that have gone together.
I think Django Django’s album really works as a journey. I think consumption of music has become more like… commuting… you can’t sit down and listen to one piece of music for too long. People are more about downloading tracks or listening to a survey of albums, rather than albums themselves. I think the industry has adjusted a little bit because they don’t have to worry about something selling like an album, just as a collection of songs.
What were your thoughts when HMV collapsed?
JN – My year 10 work experience was at HMV and yes it was sad to hear it had gone into administration. That dog’s an institution.
GS – It didn’t upset me other than the fact that I knew they had stock of ours – I think that’s what everyone in the music industry was thinking: “how much stock have they got?” It didn’t really affect me. I think it happened. That’s what happens. They haven’t adjusted to the way the industry is headed and that’s what happens.
What would you most like to achieve this year?
GS – I don’t really work to goals like that. Our approach has always been to just see what happens. We felt like we achieved a lot by winning the Mercury Prize and this year I’m looking forward to enjoying touring and enjoying the job of playing the album to people without it being new to us… and without having to learn how to tour, how to sleep on planes and so on.
What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?
GS – I’d say don’t worry about anything, it’s all going to be OK.
JN – He doesn’t need advice. If I gave him advice now it may change the course of events that led me here.
What was your album of 2012 and why?
GS – My album is Hot Chip’s album [In Our Heads]. I think it got decent press but I think it’s one of their best albums ever. I’ve seen them live this year and I think they’re still in their element and they haven’t lost anything. Some bands feel like they’re making music for the sake of it but Hot Chip have a real creative spark and they’re genuine musicians.
JN – The XX album [Coexist], I really enjoyed. We were travelling across America and it became the soundtrack to this book I was reading, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Both works were great to experience together and they seem to synergise, making the travelling from Minneapolis to Seattle a breeze.
This interview is from the latest issue of PowerOn, Roland’s digital music magazine for iPad.
PowerOn is available from the App Store and includes the latest gear, artist interviews and articles about recording technique and the business of music. Find out more about PowerOn on the App Store.