Welcome to Tap Don't Talk, a conversational feature which pits 405 writers Rob Wilson and Mike Clark against each other to shoot the shit about current affairs in the world of music. This is more casual, personal and comprehensive than a typical in-depth feature, firing up ideas about a certain topic that might not all fit into a normal article but are still worth discussing. This is by no means a conversation limited to just us though, feel free to add your two cents in the comments section below or call us names on Twitter if you want - Rob is @robinamicrowave, Mike is @Pixleh and, of course, there's @The405. Enjoy!


Mike Clark: A couple of weeks ago I was scouring Twitter in my usual vortex of procrastination when I stumbled upon Cora O'Malley taking issue with this Jeremy Allen article published by The Guardian. It's about the departure of guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury from Alt-J, which I'm sure most of us have forgotten about already. And that's basically Allen's point: it's kind of a sorry state that a founding member of one of the most popular current British bands can leave to a procession of tumbleweed and an ignominious chorus of crickets. I don't think anybody really gave a shit about Gwil Sainsbury leaving the band, which has Allen lamenting what he sees as the innocuous state of mainstream rock/pop music - especially the status of bands. Albeit, that lamentation is almost entirely obfuscated by a frankly silly amount of snarky vitriol directed towards Alt-J, a band he thinks are so bland that they don't even threaten to make an impact with people. Ironically, it's probably the most passionate anybody has gotten about the band. Anyway, jokes aside, I suppose the first question we have to ask is: is Allen's anger justified? I think it is to an extent, but I also think he forgoes interesting discourse in favour of petty point-scoring - which is probably what led to Cora calling him an "ignorant twat."

Rob Wilson: I've gone over the article a few times now in preparation for this discussion and it always feels as though, no matter how times I read it, Jeremy Allen wrote the piece with the sole intention of taking a dig at Alt-J over anything else. As if he was waiting for something to happen to Alt-J so he could tell us how much he just "didn't care". Now, don't get me wrong, I only sort-of-enjoyed their debut album An Awesome Wave when it was first released because there was very little about the album that would cause me to feel strongly about them one way or the other, but would I use them as the subject of a bitter swipe about the state of "the band" or in today's popular music scene? No. I would use Mumford & Sons. The bastards.

Mike: Why Mumford, specifically?

Rob: Oh, I wasn't being totally serious. I just think they're another current band that would only affect their fans if a member decided to call it a day. If you compare them to, say, Arctic Monkeys: you'd imagine that quite a lot of people outside of their core fanbase would at least give the smallest of shits if Matt Helders left the band -- he's an excellent drummer and an integral part of their sound -- even if that shit was the size of a rabbit poo. It would pique some interest and make people go "Oh!"

Mike: Yeah, that sounds about right. The Arctic Monkeys example is actually something that Allen brings up in the article; he says that the absence of "[the] previous Arctic Monkeys bass-player guy who left the band because he was scared of going to America or something..." would "at least threaten to register with the people." Which I agree with. Of course Alt-J aren't as popular as Arctic Monkeys and probably never will be, but they are nonetheless a globally popular mainstream band with a lot of fans - fans that I didn't hear anything from when Sainsbury left. So, does the lack of interest around Sainsbury leaving in the press and social media indicate that they're more of a fad band that are destined to be included on the identity parade in Never Mind the Buzzcocks? Or do people now see individual members as less important than the whole? Or that I just wasn't paying enough attention? Or just that they're just a kind of boring band that few people really feel passionate about, as Allen suggests? I'd probably opt for the latter.

Rob: I wouldn't say that Alt-J are boring, I just wouldn't say they're as big as Arctic Monkeys (or even Mumford & Sons for that matter). Next album around, when their fanbase is a little larger, we might see them break the top ten and grow a little more in terms of popularity, but so far their highest charting single was 'Breezeblocks' and that only reached #75. I'll admit that singles charts don't represent the music listening public as much as it used to but it's still a decent indicator of who's listening to what. Maybe they're not as big as you're suggesting. So when you bring up the debate about whether people give a shit about Alt-J or not, maybe the size of their fanbase actually has something to do with how "outsiders" react to the news of a member leaving. I mean, I've never liked Oasis very much, but when they split up it was pretty massive news because of how big they were.

Mike: An Awesome Wave did go platinum though, which means at least 300,000 copies of the album were shipped in the UK alone. That's a huge number. And then there's the amount of people who streamed the album and so on. They're hardly unknown. Now, I follow a lot of people on Twitter who keep a keen eye on all spheres of the music industry and they were all upset about Efterklang breaking up the day that Sainsbury's departure was announced. Efterklang had a much smaller fanbase than Alt-J, but more people seemed to care about them a whole lot more. It's a slightly different case, I grant you, but it seems -- even though this may not be the reality -- that despite Alt-J being more pervasive, very few people really love them. I don't know any passionate Alt-J fans. Their music doesn't seem to resonate with people in the same way as Efterklang, even if they're everywhere. There's just not much to latch on to, no personality or charisma, no any real tunes either (although that last point is more subjective). And I think the whole point of Allen's piece was to express his exasperation that THIS band is one of the biggest players in British music. Alt-J are the 'exciting' face of the British music industry, and that, I do agree, isn't great because you expect the sort of music they make -- let's just call it indie-rock or rock at this point -- to be exciting at the very least. Part of the reason Oasis and Blur and Pulp got big in the 90s was because there was a bit of drama and conflict about their very existence which fuelled their music. Even Radiohead had the mopey outsider thing going for them. These bands all seemed to stand for something and that's totally lacking now. Drama and purpose in British bands are fully represented in the alternative spheres, don't get me wrong, but in the mainstream I'm not seeing it. Alt-J stand for fuck all. Bastille stand for fuck all. The 1975 stand for fuck all. Or if they do, their marketing teams are doing an awful job getting the word out. They're utterly vapid, with no discernable image or message or anything. I think this situation is definitely worth lamenting, discussing and thinking about. Just not in the way Allen went about it, which overlooked that you can be critical without being cruel.

Rob: Oh yeah, Alt-J definitely did well in terms of album sales, which seems to be a noticeable trend at the moment. I mean, Channel Orange reached #2 in the UK Album Charts but only reached #53 with his biggest selling single ('Lost'). I was going to make the point about lack of charisma when I mentioned Oasis. Now, I've said I'm not their biggest fan and I'm not the biggest fan of Arctic Monkeys work post-2008 ether, but the music they write is designed to fill open arenas both in terms of attendees and size of the sound. They're both huge, anthemic bands that, in terms of live sound, the likes of Mumford & Sons, The Enemy and Reverend & the Makers can only dream of creating. This ties in with the sort of charisma rock fans crave. Even experimental bands such as The Flaming Lips or My Bloody Valentine have huge cult followings because of their live shows and unpredictability both on record and in their live shows. I guess Alt-J (Bastille too, and The 1975) are too polite in every sense of the word to really give people something to latch on to which could maybe count against them in the long term.

Mike: Exactly, it goes back to what I just said about them not really standing for anything, or really doing anything at all. Actually, this brings us to an interesting point: we expect the people we hold up in our culture to be, well, people. With personalities and lives and opinions, and even though the media et al will often vilify them for being people, we like that because it tends to make their art relatable. We like the drama, we like the dysfunction, we like all the stuff that adds more entertainment value to the music. Is it necessarily right to expect that from mainstream musicians such as Alt-J? Is it a bad thing that Alt-J and friends don't seem like the most exciting bunch? Should the music do the talking?

Rob: Well, this is where my main problem with Allen's article lies. It's almost as if he's criticising the band for not falling out with each other every 30 seconds, or for not wrecking their equipment like Death Grips do at every other show. Alt-J come across as mild-mannered and polite chaps who do create a unique sound for a band in today's industry. But maybe if they drove their "unique" aesthetic through sound-bites and false passion in the way Jake Bugg does, for example, then people might devote themselves more. Perhaps in today's industry, it has to be a combination of marketing, image and sound in order for people to care about a band enough.

Mike: Today's industry? Hasn't that always been the case? Just look at Rock n' Roll, Punk, Britpop and all the other various movements.

Rob: I'd say so, but I was merely trying to keep it as relevant to this conversation as possible.

Mike: Ah, fair enough. Anyway, while I think it's unfair that we seemingly expect popular musicians to implode for our enjoyment, I do think that they should at least have a reason to exist, something to say. This is my problem with Alt-J, they seem so empty, so bereft of energy. I mean, their name is taken from a fucking keyboard shortcut. This sort of leads onto something that's still brewing in my mind, and was fired up by another Guardian article by Sean O'Hagan: if you look at a lot of the bands mentioned in Allen's article and O'Hagan piece, the rock bands that were popular in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they're mostly from working class backgrounds. And it's interesting that the supposedly anaemic state of modern mainstream rock music has coincided with the "gentrification" of the arts described in O'Hagan's piece. If class really is less of an important issue in society -- or should I say, if being working-class is now something to be ashamed of in Cameron's Britain -- then it's being reflected in what's deemed culturally significant. Just look at Mumford and Sons. Now, I don't know about you, but as a working-class guy I tend to engage a lot more with music by the working classes. I suppose I associate it with having something to more say about about the world, compared to whatever the fuck 'Fitzpleasure' is about. And I guess that's what I want from rock music in general, a vitality and a necessity of existence. That's not to say that if it's not working-class in origin, it's devoid of import or meaning because that would be clearly bullshit, it's just a silly preconceived notion I've developed. Although I guess that would make Jake Bugg something of an anomaly. As I said, this isn't really a fully formed theory yet and I don't really know how to frame a proper question around it, but it's still interesting to consider that Alt-J have thrived when they seemingly have nothing to be about - that our culture is totally accepting of that. What say you?

Rob: My main problem with bands deemed working class in today's music industry (The Enemy, Reverend & the Makers, The Courteeners, Kasabian - you know the type) is that everything they tend to say borders on parody because of how insincere it comes across. Kasabian are writing songs about the horse meat scandal from last year for God's sake - how the hell can I attach myself to that and take it seriously? The Enemy are still insistent on pushing the "anything more than 5 chords in a song is pretentious, middle class wankery" aesthetic and are sounding like right arses for doing it. I don't think I'll ever truly believe in a working class band again because I just can't get on board with the messages they try and convey in their lyrics. I end up cringing at stuff like 'What Doesn't Kill You' by Jake Bugg because of how fucking FORCED his image is. Alt-J's lyrics are incredibly vague and sort of wishy-washy (triangles are their favourite shape apparently), and that's perhaps why my enthusiasm for them sort of dissipated, but if they really don't have anything of interest to say, they know that. They've never pretended to be anything other than what they are. If they lack charisma then I think that's fair enough - after all, it's not Alt-J's responsibility to be the face of British rock music, it's just something that's sort of happened to them.