music nostalgia

guitar pedals

You know that scene in Dazed and Confused where Matthew McConaghey’s Wooderson talks about why he loves high school girls? “I get older, they stay the same age.”

Last night I had a revelation in a similar, but less celebratory, vein. The boy had scored tickets to the sold out alt-J show at Bowery Ballroom, and the buzz was big. They’re British, they’re a shoo-in for the Mercury Prize this year, and they look like they’re barely out of high school. Bands. Every year I get older, but they stay the same age. I’ve been going to see gigs for over ten years now. I used to look up to the guitar toting gods; then they became my contemporaries. Now I’m getting to the point where I look at the next big thing and wonder why they’re not finishing their homework with a glass of milk before bedtime at 9.30.

alt-J, though. The hype appears to be justified. I hadn’t known what to expect, so I was a little surprised by the multi-vocal harmonies that lead the songs. alt-J use vocals like another instrument, sometimes hooky, sometimes percussive, sometimes droning. Harmonies honed in perfect unison. Lyrics were difficult to distinguish, if indeed they were lyrics and not merely scat sounds. I couldn’t help wondering whether this kind of singing could ever have become cool without Glee’s a capella revival to smooth the way. But just because the vocal approach was unexpected doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it; I was reminded a lot of The Futureheads, who I loved back in the day. The drumming was furious and razor sharp; the band played with tempo and often hit a dubby groove with that kind of bass that sneaks up through your toes to make you dance, and the guitars and keys tangled around each other intricately. There’s a joyousness and playfulness that runs through alt-J’s songs, but not at the expense of depth. Best of all they brought out a church choir for a couple of songs, and for the encore they made incredible use of pizzicato violin and resonant cello. I never realised how much I love the cello.

New York music crowds, especially at these cool smaller clubs, tend to be an impassive bunch, but for alt-J the mood was jubilant and uncharacteristically enthusiastic. The giant neon triangle that was part of their lighting set-up reminded me of the book my sister gave me for Christmas, HipsterMattic, in which a bloke attempts to become the ultimate hipster. He starts a band, rides a fixie, drinks too much coffee, attempts to sell scrabble-tile jewellery at a market stall. After some anecdotal research he decides to get a tattoo of a triangle because it seems the most hipster symbol possible – lazily simple, ambiguous, enigmatic, and a tie-in to his terrible band TRINGLR.

So when my boy threw up a little triangle hand symbol back at alt-J, I assumed he was taking the piss. But the joke was on me and my PC-owning broke ass. Cos “alt-J” is the command on a Mac keyboard to make a triangle. Suddenly everyone was making the finger triangle, even the band did it as they left the stage, and that’s when I knew. It’s true. This band is going to be huge. When you have your own hand symbol, when you’ve taken ownership of a geometric shape, you can’t fight that destiny.

*nb: these are not alt-J’s pedals.