Indie Act Alt-J Wins Mercury Prize
Indie Act Alt-J Wins Mercury Prize

"Is it too much to expect that we have a new sound?" asks Gus Unger-Hamilton, keyboardist of English band Alt-J, whose moniker is a computer keyboard command that results in the Greek letter Delta.

Unger-Hamilton is responding to the most common criticism in any write-up of his band: The music is unclassifiable or undecipherable, a mashup of genres spanning hip-hop, pop, folk, trip-hop, rock, funk, electronica and R&B. He thinks it over another second.

Being described as "hard to describe" is "probably a good thing," he says. "We don't find genres particularly helpful. Music doesn't need to be so easily categorized. There's no need to call it anything."

Well, maybe one thing: unpredictable. Alt-J formed in 2008 when the band members were students at Leeds University, then spent almost four years honing in on a sound before recording its debut. "An Awesome Wave" has already been released in England, but arrives stateside on Sept. 18 through Canvasback.

At home, the act is being hailed as a breakthrough band, and was just nominated for this year's Mercury Prize. In the United States, however, Alt-J is still unknown. Prior to launching a tour on Sept. 12, the group has played less than a dozen shows stateside. But the secret won't last: In May, Alt-J was an opening act at New York's 250-capacity Mercury Lounge. This week, it sold out the much bigger Bowery Ballroom as headliner.

Its music isn't Alt-J's only unique factor. During an age in which new acts are quickly signed on the strength of early demos or first sparks and then rushed into a studio, Alt-J decided to take its time. "There was no question of us giving up our degrees to work on music -- we knew we wanted to graduate," Unger-Hamilton says. "We were in no hurry for anything to happen."

Still, the band members -- Unger-Hamilton, guitarist Gwil Sainsbury, singer Joe Newman and drummer Thom Green -- knew they were on to something. After graduation, the bandmates finally shifted their focus, spending "months on each song," Unger-Hamilton says. "There are no songs on the album which were written in an afternoon."

As a result, "An Awesome Wave" lacks "the real youthfulness of some debut albums," says Unger-Hamilton, who calls it "prematurely middle-aged" -- but captivating, dark and enigmatic is more apt. The sound is new, but not without reference points: the wild, exotic grooves of Yeasayer or Suckers, the stoic intensity of the xx, the bubbling electronic touches of late-era Radiohead and the laser-precise harmonies and pop-smart catchiness of classic FM radio. Though the Sept. 18 release marks its official U.S. introduction, the band says that online avenues like SoundCloud are responsible for some early successes. The album was uploaded to the site almost six months ago, with each song now averaging 150,000 plays.

"Instead of taking the stream down because of damaged sales, it paid off. The first U.S. shows were sold out," Canvasback director of marketing Jack Hedges says. "By giving access to the music, the band created its own lane. EDM crowds could embrace this, but so could the Pitchfork crowd, the jam band scene and the left-field hip-hop crowd."

The act already has a recognizable symbol, with fans forming the triangular Delta shape with their hands at shows, not unlike a certain hip-hop mogul's signage. "It could be Alt-Jay-Z," Unger-Hamilton says with a laugh. "Let's make it happen."

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