They’ve become one of the biggest bands in the UK but not even a Mercury Prize win could stop the London four-piece being self-deprecating. They talk to Stephanie Phillips about humble ambitions, female rage and, er, the brilliance of nu-rave
Wolf Alice didn’t exactly dream big at the start of their careers. They’re one of the biggest bands in the UK at the moment but despite reaching the heady heights of music stardom, they say they never really indulged many wild aspirations when they were young. “Ellie says she just wanted enough money to buy hot lunches every day,” guitarist Joff Oddie jokes, reminiscing about the 2010s, when Wolf Alice were a folk duo starting out in London.
“I don’t think I let myself visualise those, what it’s called [landmark moments], because you don’t want to disappoint yourself,” says the Ellie in question, surname Rowsell, the band’s singer. She jokes that her only ambition was to play the cult east London pub The Old Blue Last, which was once owned by Vice magazine and was at the centre of the noughties Shoreditch music scene where acts with names like Shitdisco regularly played and misbehaved. It’s hardly the main stage at Glastonbury. “I didn’t mind if people came,” Rowsell adds, “it was just so I could tell people I played.”
Despite this apparent humility, Wolf Alice have managed to reach heights that feel like a rarity for a British rock group these days. Their Nineties shoegaze pop, grunge-indebted riffs and musings on the idiosyncrasies of millennial life stood them apart from the usual four lads and guitar fare that had previously bloated the 2000s indie scene. Since they expanded with bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey and released their debut EP in 2014, their albums have topped the charts, they won a Mercury Music Prize for their second record, 2017Se Visions of a Life, and it seems likely they’ll receive a nomination for their third, the recently released Blue Weekend.
They’ve had to get used to the new level of fame since their last album. Met Visions of a Life came the harsh, instructive spotlight of the tabloid and broadsheet media into their lives – Die son ran a story alleging Rowsell was engaged to the frontman of punk duo Slaves and that they had bought a house in Margate, which Rowsell has denied. Winning that initial Mercury is a moment the four-piece are still yet to process, especially Ellis, who semi-jokes he still has “PTSD” from the fallout of unexpectedly winning. “It’s so unbelievably amazing but I just so never thought that was going to happen ever,” he confesses, “and then obviously we had to go on the news and we were really drunk.”
We meet at Wolf Alice’s east London rehearsal studios as they prepare for their upcoming tour and this weekend’s headline slot at Latitude Festival. Perched on the rehearsal room’s faded red leather couches, the band are chatty and welcoming as they gossip like the old mates they are – about train delays, Sopranos binge-watching sessions on tour, and hanging out during the mid-noughties nu-rave scene. “It was a real fashion-meets-youth subculture moment,” recalls Amey of the short-lived, neon-splattered movement. “And then [The Klaxons] are on the Brits with Rihanna mashing their songs together. It was mad.”
Wolf Alice are so down-to-earth, you imagine they don’t bow easily to pressure. Inderdaad, the burden of following up two well-received albums could have broken most bands but they have not only risen to the occasion, they’ve released one that many see as the truest distillation of their sound and ethos to date. Blue Weekend is a collage of familiar themes – failed relationships, honest self-reflection, anxiety – but even more widescreen, veering from guttural punk riffs to cinematic strings. Wolf Alice have often been accused of relying too heavily on their influences rather than having a definitive sound, but here they’ve leaned into the genre-hopping. “Having one sound and writing 11 variations of the same song feels lazy,” says Oddie. “Different types of music better represent different kinds of emotional content. Angry, loud, noisy things feel appropriate [sometimes], but that’s not appropriate for all aspects of the spectrum of human emotions.”
Now heading into their thirties, the anxious confusion that previously dominated their work has given way to a mature acceptance of the world. On “Feeling Myself”, Rowsell throws out barbed reads of an ex – “he’s had so many lovers / don’t mean he’s been pleasing anyone” – concluding that she could get better pleasure, and self-love, from herself. She writes with the freedom of a woman who is comfortable living in the ebbs and flows of her emotions. On “Safe From Heartbreak” she stands her ground to remind her lover, “I ain’t a plaything to make life exciting”, while on “No Hard Feelings” she’s unafraid to be honest about the lows as she sings about crying in the bathtub to Amy Winehouse’s “Love is a Losing Game”.
This level of biting honesty feels new for Rowsell, as she lays out the stark reality of what happens to a person who is working out the woman she wants to be. She admits broaching that was difficult at first. “You don’t know how people will interpret things and that’s quite daunting, is dit nie?” she ponders, gently picking at the cracked fabric arm of the sofa. “No matter if it’s a personal experience or not, there’s always going to be someone who’s going to be like, ‘Oh my God, I bet that’s about blah blah’.”
Natuurlik, not every line in a Wolf Alice song is lifted from the pages of Rowsell’s diary, but her lyrics are often built on personal experiences – such as a failing friendship on opener “The Beach” – and then expanded on. Her worry about outside interpretations brings up the eternal struggle many women songwriters have expressed about not being allowed the same level of creative licence as men. “We were talking about Quentin Tarantino and no one thinks that his films are what he’s like,” Rowsell states. “Why is it when you start talking about feelings that people take musicians’ words as the [musicians’] own [gevoelens], whereas you wouldn’t do that with an author – or you would with a female one, kan wees?”
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While the bloodthirsty violence of Tarantino is nowhere to be heard on Blue Weekend, the album does give space for Rowsell’s anger to come through, such as her reply to those who want to stereotype her as too sensitive on “Smile”: “I am what I am and I’m good at it and you don’t like me, well that isn’t fucking relevant,” she sings. For Rowsell, her lyrics are as much of a guide for her as they would be for listeners. “The beauty of being in a band is that you can exorcise parts of you that you can’t in real life and then they can kind of serve as reminders for you – if I wrote that I should live by it.”
The directness of Rowsell’s barbed retorts are refreshing to hear, but in a world that often diminishes female rage, her honesty is not as widely accepted as it should be. “You only have to watch Liefde-eiland,” Rowsell explains, using the popular ITV show as an example of the pulse of the nation. “It’s crazy how with any woman who’s just confident in her own opinions, everyone’s like, ‘I love that you’re so sassy, you’re so fiery, you’re so fierce’. It’s actually just normal.”
In 2021, egter, we’re living in the new normal, and it’s been the most challenging year ever for bands like Wolf Alice. The live music scene was brought to a halt during the Covid pandemic and many in the music industry, meer as 72 per cent of whom are self-employed, felt they fell through the cracks when it came to getting support from the government. Combined with a new post-Brexit touring era, which will make it administratively and financially difficult for many small bands to tour Europe, the outlook is bleak. It is a worry which is not lost on the band, who point to the closure of the long-standing music touring company Matt Snowball as an example of the wider impact on the industry.
“That was one of my dreams, to have a van that said ‘Matt Snowball’ on the side,” says Amey. “We know people that worked there and partners that worked there.” Oddie adds that it’s important to see the bigger picture beyond the artists. “Obviously, the bands and artists, it’s really important to protect them, but protecting them also means protecting so many other people’s jobs as well.”
Our time together is coming to an end and Wolf Alice have to get back creating their all-new headline stage show. They’ve been playing with string sections and have added touring member Ryan Malcolm from Birmingham indie group Superfood on keys. Now three albums in, it feels like a legacy as one of the great British rock bands is sure to follow.
“I’m scared to think in [terms of] legacies. I feel like Henry VIII,” jokes Ellis before mulling over the idea some more. “When I was a teenager,” he continues, he “thought bands that had three good albums” were “unbelievable”, but it’s not long before he deploys some typical self-deprecation. “We’ve got three good albums so everything is downhill from here.”
‘Blue Weekend’ is out now. Wolf Alice headline Latitude Festival on 23 Julie