Flashing lights and throbbing, meditative humming greeted Alt-J last week as the guys stepped on stage at the iHeartRadio Theater in New York City. As part of the TIDAL X series, the band did a Q&A and played an hour long set for lucky fans in attendance and watching live online thanks to TIDAL and iHeartRadio.
With polite smiles, lead vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman, drummer Thom Green, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, and touring guitarist / bassist Cameron Knight (taking the place of Gwil Sainsbury) thanked the audience and jumped right into "Hunger of the Pine."
The song samples Miley Cyrus, but it's the band's swirling atmospherics, pulsing bass, and silky vocals that make the track an instant Alt-J hit. After a slow fade out, the audience erupted into applause, and once again, the guys grinned modestly and nodded their heads in appreciation.
One of the most intriguing characteristics of seeing Alt-J live is the quiet disposition the band seems to collectively share (onstage and off, they're always glancing at each other as if sharing a private joke). Though the concert was also a Q&A, Unger-Hamilton was the only one that really said anything. Even in discussing recent inspirations, Unger-Hamilton was the only one that replied, simply saying that the band finds inspiration in playing with one another and the chemistry they share. Other answers were playful and funny, though their humor was far more dry than the peppy host asking all the questions. When discussing Iguana Studios (where they've recorded both albums) Unger-Hamilton joked that the studio was little more than a small, windowless room but they liked it because it had a pool table.
Quiet and shy though they were in the interview, the band never failed to say "thanks" or "cheers" after each song, one time even acknowledging a small group of friends in the back that were said to have been at Alt-J's first ever performance. It's this dichotomy of polite aloofness paired with the band's undeniable confidence that make them so interesting to see. Alt-J isn't a band to run around on stage, rather, they focus on the music and it pays off. Rooted to their spots, every note during the set was deliberate and fearless, expressing a self-assuredness that made us completely forget about their timidity in the Q&A.
It's a good thing that Alt-J are talented musicians, because the acoustics in the iHeartRadio Theater could be very unforgiving. Instead of an ambient drone that can hover in other venues around NYC, the iHeartRadio Theater has a crisp clarity that makes every note audible. Even Knight's castanets in "Fitzpleasure" clicked articulately over the rush of noise that would generally be drowned out in most other crowded venues. Such acoustics made the concert feel like one giant, sound-sealing headphone that coddles all it's audience members, giving the band's softer, more dreamy tracks ("Bloodflood" and "The Gospel of John Hurt") an ethereal quality you can feel, while still providing a radiating energy to their more upbeat, articulate tracks ("Left Hand Free" and "Breezeblocks").
Though I could hardly see more than the tips of Thom Green's sticks flying in the air, his sound couldn't be missed; articulate, impeccable timing, and beats far more creative than your average rhythms. Not only is he about 80% deaf, but he drums on a truly unique set which includes two bongos, a single cymbal, a tambourine, a synth drum pad, and one floor tom.
The final song of the evening was a bonus track, titled "Lovely Day." It's a slower song and a curiously sleepy choice for the end of a concert, but its beautiful composition made it enjoyable nonetheless. Indeed, the song seemed to leave the audience in a daze, torn between applauding and demanding their return as the band gave their final thanks and left the stage.
All photos by Todd Owyoung for iHeartRadio