I will always remember that 2012 concert in Manchester, where, I think, the four members of Alt-J were performing for the second time. “Were performing” may be a little too strong: the venue in which they were about to play (with Money and No Ceremony///, who were giving their first ever concert) was actually an art gallery, turned into a venue for a student party. There was an illegal bar that sold tepid beer for £2. It was mostly a lot of noise and a lot of people, many of whom weren’t even paying attention to what was happening on the platform that served as a stage – the acoustics were terrible and nothing the young band tried could stop the little disaster.
An Awesome Wave wasn’t even out but its brilliant songs were already there: “Matilda,” “Tessellate,” “Fitzpleasure,” “Bloodflood,” “Taro” and “Breezeblocks,” of course, which NoiseNews had sent me at the beginning of the year with a note saying to listen to it “right now.” I know it’s cheesy, but it was love at first sight. The live performance, despite its weird atmosphere, allowed us to distinguish the richness of the band’s pieces, their tortuous structures – sometimes too involved and broad to reproduce onstage for such a young band.
It was easy to predict that such an album would be successful, but we couldn’t yet imagine the hordes of fans waving their hands in the air to make the famous triangle sign with their fingers. Nor could we imagine the voices that would come together to shout the lyrics to “Matilda,” which the band would play a few months later, stripped of any artifice, for one of our Take Away Shows. Far from the commotion starting to buzz all around them, the young men were careless, amazed, a little shy maybe and but at ease. Above all, they looked happy to be there, deconstructing the complexity of their music on a bench in Montmartre, surrounded by groups of tourists, in a video series that – they say it themselves about the Take Away Shows – had accompanied them since their college years and the band’s beginnings.
Three years later, and one member fewer, the band has released a second album, This is All Yours. They now headline the biggest venues and festivals, fill the Zénith de Paris in a few hours, sleep in a tour bus the size of a small apartment, feature in Hollywood movie soundtracks, have thousands of fans (including Miley Cyrus), get on the prestigious Brit Awards list and are soon expected to win some Grammys, if we’re to believe the predictions of our American friends.
Of course, we’d seen each other in the meantime, during their show at the Casino de Paris that we filmed last September. But when Gus, Joe and Thom walked through the door of the Chapelle des Beaux-Arts de Paris, where we were going to film them one more time on that cold day in January, the expressions on their faces were exactly the same as three years ago: between wonder, carefreeness, timidity, profound simplicity and the joy of being there, only days after filling London’s giant O2 Arena.
Alt-J is the kind of band we’ve followed closely from the very beginning, from some bench in Montmartre to one of the most stunning venues in Paris. When the idea was born to film them somewhere unique and precious, we couldn’t have imagined a place more beautiful than the Chapelle des Petits-Augustins.
Under the protection of a copy of the The statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, whose original form stands in Venice,in front of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, in the historic site’s surprising acoustics, we offered to this beloved band the perfect setting to house the orchestral grandeur that their music assumes, to let the percussion reverberate to infinity, to let their voices and guitars echo against the centenary walls covered in artwork. Three years after I first saw them in Manchester, this show felt like a complete holy communion and the audience was speechless.
Translated by Johan Diouf & Lauren McCracken