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On Sunday, March 2, the Paradise Rock Club held a sold out crowd that was murmuring with excitement even before the doors opened. English indie rock band Alt-J opened their US tour to this crowd, the first night of an almost nonstop tour that runs until October, which includes stops at music festivals like Coachella, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, and even SXSW, where they will be opening for The Flaming Lips.
Here in Boston, Alt-J sold out two back-to-back nights at The Paradise, a promising start for this long haul. In an interview before the show, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton spoke of these developments: “It’s pretty crazy… It’s only a few months ago, towards the end of last year that we started playing venues of this size in the UK. So I mean, we played Camden, Electric Ballroom. That was twelve hundred and that was the biggest show we’ve ever done. Not it’s February and we’re doing this in cities all over the states. It’s pretty amazing.”
Opening for Alt-J was electronic-pop band Hundred Waters from Gainesville, Florida. The band consists of five members, two of which double as guitarists and synth operators. Leading the band was singer and keyboardist Nicole Miglis, a petite young woman who seemed to keep time through all ten songs by bouncing energetically on the balls of her feet. Though their sound was heavily electronic, Miglis provided variation when she picked up a flute and played a few notes, putting it on a loop and further layering the sound. The crowd reception was very enthusiastic, as many had been dancing to the band’s catchy beats.
By the time Alt-J took the stage, the audience was ready, and welcoming. Unger-Hamilton had commented earlier on the differences between American audiences and European ones. “They really like whooping over here… and sometimes howling.” Guitarist Gwil Sainsbury chimed in: “Here it’s more like bro noises. That’s not bad. That’s quite nice.” Alt-J got all that and more, as they took their “Interlude I” into the first full song, “Tessallate”. Following this was “Something Good” to which the audience began to sing along. Lead singer Joe Newman, who had previously been focused and solemn looking, cracked a smile as the voices ebbed and flowed behind the parts they could sing, and even the parts they couldn’t.
Though most likely smiling out of appreciation, a bit of his smile had to be knowing– Newman’s voice has a distinct, clipped lilt to it, one that is not easily replicated, even by the most devoted fan. Gwil Sainbury commented, “When we made [An Awesome Wave] we didn’t have any idea of a direction in terms of sound or knowing what Alt-J sounds like… I think I’ve said before that maybe we’re quite lucky because we have Joe, and his voice is so distinct.” Maybe the easiest to sing along to was the fan favorite, “Matilda,” which the band admits to be the simplest song to play. When it came time to play it around the middle of the set, there was an immediate, positive visceral reaction, which Unger-Hamilton finds to be quite entertaining: “After ‘Matilda’, we tend to tack on this guitar interlude from the album – the second interlude. And it’s just Joe playing some woozy-bluesy guitar and I notice, at the end of that, that people are always making out. We see it and we’re just like ‘Oh! It’s the makeout time.’”
After “Matilda” came “Bloodfools”, which quickened the tempo and showcased some notable drum work by Thom Green. Green contributes to the band’s unique sound as well, due to the absence of cymbals from his drum kit. Instead, Green works with a tambourine, block, and bongos, creating a neat, precise sound that helps drive beats in numbers like “Bloodfools” and “Fitzpleasure”. This absence of the typical cymbals actually aids Alt-J’s dramatic pauses, for there is no danger of that sort of sound bleeding into the intended silence. For example, at points during “Bloodfools”, everything falls silent as Joe Newman whispers into the mic, “Breath in – Exhale” – following his own instructions as he breathes along with the words. It is a very intimate experience and the fact that the percussion is able to work around it added to the mood and intensity of those moments.
During the interview, Gus and Gwil spoke about the band’s sound for a while longer. Since they admitted they did not know where they were going with the band’s sound when recording their album, it is hard to predict where they will go from here. On the road, it is very difficult to them to write new material because, “we’re not really a band that sits around with guitars in the dressing rooms sort of bashing out songs,” says Unger-Hamilton. Instead, whenever the band can grab a moment while all of their equipment is together, usually before sound check, they may have an opportunity to play around a bit and experiment as a whole. Gus added if they find something good, they may pull out their phones and record it, to “squirrel it away and then bring it out at a more convenient time.” After the band has played An Awesome Wave to audiences all over the globe they will finally get a chance to work on some of the material they have. “There will be a point sometime this year where we open up these little boxes of music, stuff we’ve probably forgotten we ever did, and we’ll be lucky we ever recorded it!”
Alt-J closed their concert with two encore songs, “Handmade” and fan favorite, “Taro”. During the latter, a man leaned over to his girlfriend. “This band is going places!” he yelled into her ear, just as the audience began singing along again. As Sainsbury commented: “A lot of people seem to moan about touring, and it can be quite hard because there’s a lot of traveling involved in it. But at the end of the day you’re going somewhere. You’re going to a different country to play to people who want you to come there.” It seems like that is what Alt-J will be doing in the near future: going somewhere. Whether traveling geographically, exploring their sound, moving up the charts, or any combination of the three, Alt-J will be definitely on the go for some time.