alt-J: A new Wave?
The departure of founding members from a band’s line-up can have a transformative impact on its output and live performances. While the Sugababes have managed to switch replacements in for all three original singers without compromising their sound, acts that rely upon collective creative energy and tight-knit ensemble musicianship are at much greater threat from line-up changes than manufactured, commercial pop groups.
alt-J is one such band. In many interviews, frontman Joe Newman has proudly claimed that he could not make music effectively in any other band. His theory is that his group’s highly distinctive sound developed organically from the pre-existent bond the four University of Leeds alumni shared as friends. It is always unsettling for a group to lose a member of its rhythm section; for instance, fellow indie heavyweights Bloc Party sorely missed the mechanically precise hi-hat sixteenth notes of drummer Matt Tong during their shows at last year’s summer festivals.
But Gwil Sainsbury’s decision to defect from alt-J is especially threatening, given not only his massive contribution to the group’s watertight “folk-step” rhythms, but also his close proximity – as friend and fellow founder to all three remaining musicians – to its spiritual core. There is also the versatility of his playing to be missed; my favourite Sainsbury “moment” stems not from his bass-playing but from his guitar: an instrument out of which he magically coaxed the oriental chorus riff of ‘Taro’.
It may even be that, far from being a debilitating force, Gwil Sainsbury’s departure provides a form of difficult but ultimately cleansing creative catharsis.
Thankfully, however, the members of alt-J have announced no intention of cutting their project short. It may even be that, far from being a debilitating force, Sainsbury’s departure provides a form of difficult but ultimately cleansing creative catharsis; one which prompts the band to strip its writing approach bare in advance of their sophomore album. As brilliantly received as An Awesome Wave has been since its release in 2012, the Mercury Prize-winning record has a clear potential – with its tightly-focused but singular aesthetic and often repetitive idiosyncrasies – to become the next in a long list of highly-acclaimed one-hit wonders.
Essentially, I am suggesting that Sainsbury’s absence – as saddening as it may be – has the potential to bring a stronger deviation from An Awesome Wave out of alt-J than might otherwise have been possible. Adaptation to this testing personnel change could force this hugely inventive band to evolve, rather than take the fossilised form of a forgotten one-trick pony of indie-pop.