Interview with Gwil Sainsbury of Alt-J at The Orpheum, September 1, 2013.
Making their second appearance in Vancouver in 2013, I had the pleasure of sitting down with guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury from the 2012 British Mercury Prize winner Alt-J. The quartet has been touring extensively since the release of their debut album in 2012. With their music drawing on a multitude of musical genres, including folk verses complimented with a unique mixture of electronic, indie and alt-pop, they were able to lift the audience onto their feet at a sold out Orpheum Theatre.
Vancouver Weekly: I understand you met at Leeds University?
Gwil Sainsbury: Yes, we met at Leeds.
VW: How did the four of you come together?
GS: Me, Tom [the drummer], Joe [singer], we were doing fine arts. We were in the same course, in the same year. So we just sort of knew each other. It was a very small year; there were about thirty people in our year. It was more like a class. And Gus [keyboards] was in English Literature, and we knew him because he was in the same hall and residences as Joe. And Joe had been writing songs on the guitar for quite a while, just by himself. I think he was quite drunk and showed me some of them, and I thought they were really good, so we just made some recordings, and then got Gus and Tom involved.
VW: So now you’ve been together for six years?
GS: Yeah, I find it really hard to tell. I think it’s five and a half maybe? Coming up to six years.
VW: You’ve graduated university.
VW: What made you to decide to focus on music [post-graduation]?
GS: I think it was that we were Arts graduates and we didn’t actually have anything else. So we didn’t have any other careers on the go, we weren’t set for life. It was very much like, ‘Well we’ve graduated now. That means the most secure part of our lives is over at University.’ It was just… the band was going really well, and it seemed like a good thing, that we were enjoying to, kind of, record more songs that we had, and we just ended up doing it.
VW: You’ve then released a couple of 7” records, an EP…
GS: Well we never really physically released an EP; we only put it on soundcloud. But we released “Bloodflood” and “Tessellate”, as a 7”. That feels like a long time ago. That was through a magazine and not on a label. We then did our first single release, which was “Matilda” and “Fitzpleasure”, in the UK.
VW: Then, in 2012, you release An Awesome Wave. You began to gain a little more popularity, a bigger fan base. Then you won the Mercury Prize. When you first came together to write and play music in 2007, is this the direction that you envisioned your music to bring you to?
GS: It’s certainly not what I envisioned [laughs]. I think it’s more of what you might, like, dream. It’s a ridiculous sort of like… other life. It’s not something that I thought would happen. I thought we would release the album, and some blogs might like it, and then they might write about it, but nobody would really give a shit. And then we would go and have to get other jobs [laughs]. I’m not like, optimistic, like, ‘Yeah, yeah! We could go around the whole world with this record!’ I certainly didn’t think that was possible.
VW: I see you’ve had the opportunity to compose the score for the film Leave to Remain. How did you get this opportunity?
GS: The director, Bruce Goodison, had been listening to our album while he was writing the script. And so I think he sort of thought that it was a natural kind of extension to ask us if we can write the music for it. I am not sure what is really happening with the film at the moment. We wrote the music for the film in February , and we’ve done nothing since. It was a fun thing to do.
VW: Did you find writing music for a film much different than writing music for an album?
GS: It is a lot easier… it is way easier [laughs]. We just did another one [score composition] for a BBC documentary. With that, you can just export it into whatever music software you are using, and it literally is just playing along to it while watching it on screen. It’s very intuitive. It’s very, quite, free. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing. I mean, you do, when you go back and you try to get to points in things like that. But most of the time it’s just very fun and kind of a therapeutic thing to be doing. When you’re writing pop songs, I suppose, which is what the album is, or what it attempts to be. There’s a lot more thinking involved in it, there’s a lot more of, ‘My god, we’ve only got one chorus, what are we doing here?’ And stuff like that. There’s just no issue [writing music for a film], it’s completely sort of time-based. Obviously making pop music is time-based, but it’s not the same kind of journey that you can sort of go on. It’s rewarding.
VW: What are you going to do with the music if the film doesn’t get released?
GS: We’ve got all of the rights!
VW: Would you release something with the music?
GS: Oh yeah, I think some of it would make the second album. It was a nice thing to do anyway because it gave us a collection of sounds and tracks for us to just have in our back pocket.
VW: You have been touring extensively in 2013. When have you found the time to write music?
GS: I think that writing as a band is really hard to do on tour. Today we’ll see our instruments on sound check, which is cool. And after we check our songs for the set, we might get a chance to jam. But that’s pretty much it. That’s the pinnacle of writing on tour. We don’t have any days off really when we are on tour. There’s no chance being in a rehearsal room somewhere in Vancouver, or something like that. I think by yourself you can do lots of things, especially with Ableton and other music software programs on the computer. You don’t have to have access to a studio, and you can work on things by yourself and give them to someone else in the group and be like, ‘What did you think of this? You can do something on your own computer with it.’ We’ve gotten a little more computer-y, definitely. We used to be sitting around in our bedrooms playing instruments, and now it’s a bit more like computer swapping.
VW: I’ve heard through the grapevine that you’ve been playing a new song [“Warm Foothills”] at some of your more recent shows. Does this mean in the near future you are going to be recording a new album?
GS: I suppose that’s the plan, isn’t it? We’ve been on tour for two years pretty much. We’ve gotten to the point where it feels a bit fortunate playing a set as it is, even though we’ve only got one album and that is all anyone can expect to hear from us. We’ve been doing these songs for a long time, every night, so we needed to put something new in there. That’s not a finished song or anything, it’s just something that we quite liked, and we felt that it would fill that bit of the set in a good way. And it seemed healthy to put something new in there. I always feel sorry, especially watching other bands, like while I’m watching the XX, I was listening to them just before their second album came out and they were doing some big festivals. They’d be playing tracks off of their first album, and the crowd would be really into it, and then they would play a new song, and you can see everyone just waiting for it to finish. I always feel sorry for fans, that’s how I always felt when I go see a band. If they play stuff off a new album that they haven’t released yet I’d be like, ‘Fuck off.’ [laughs].
VW: In some of your songs you’ve made movie references, and your band had been previously named Films; is it safe for me to assume that you are all into movies and cinema?
GS: I think that the term ‘cinema’ wouldn’t be appropriate; ‘movies’ would be. I’m not really into films that much. I’m not a film buff. I’m not a music buff either. Joe, who writes the lyrics, is really into movies. Not cinema so much, it’s broader. That’s my issue with cinema. It’s a bracket of films, it’s quite restrictive. Joe can watch the shittiest film that I literally couldn’t waste my time watching and he’d be entirely happy.
VW: Your music covers a vast array of musical genres. I am interested to know what do you listen to? Who is your favorite band/artist? And they don’t necessarily have to be an influence to your music, but just who you enjoy listening to.
GS: Do you know what? I am not listening to any music. I don’t know what that’s about [laughs]. I haven’t listened to any new music in a while, unless someone else is playing in a big room. I find myself going back to Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar, just because they’ve got loads of music. I just find a CD that I have never heard before, and I find it very calming. I haven’t listened to any new albums this year. Pink Floyd is definitely up there. But we don’t talk about bands, as a band. We really don’t go there. I often don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about bands that I’m into as it’s not what the band’s about. It’s more about what I’m into.