Cool as Wonderland – in conversation with Wolf Alice

Cool Runnings: Wolf Alice - from the left: Joff Oddie, Ellie Rowsell, Joel Amey, Theo Ellis

Cool Runnings: Wolf Alice – from the left: Joff Oddie, Ellie Rowsell, Joel Amey, Theo Ellis

I’ve admitted before that this blog is occasionally guilty of donning Captain Sensible style New Rose-tinted specs, looking back wistfully on the good old days (whatever the subject matter).

But while inspired by so much great music from ‘way back’ (typically-vague writewyattuk time terminology there), there’s plenty of new material to love right now too, with some shining examples featured over the last few days via the BBC’s TV and radio coverage of Glastonbury 2015.

One such fantastic example involved a live set on the Park Stage by Wolf Alice, in the week their debut LP, My Love Is Cool, saw the light of day.

At one stage it looked like they was going straight in at No.1, but in the end they had to settle for second spot after a late sales flurry for Florence and the Machine linked to their own late elevation to Friday night headliners in the Foo Fighters’ absence.

It didn’t matter anyway, Wolf Alice’s Glasto appearance proving to be a triumph, what had already been a big week for the North London four-piece gathering further pace.

While the rain did its best to dampen spirits at Worthy Farm on Friday afternoon, Ellie Rowsell and co. were undeterred and on something of a creative and emotional high.

It clearly takes more than technical and meteorological problems plus late sales switches to unseat them, as I suspected after a chat with Joff Oddie the day before, the Somerset-bound guitarist having briefly pulled off the road.

We started talking about the band’s unexpected midweek UK album chart top spot, and I put it to Joff that these were unprecedented good times for the band.

Flowered Up: Wolf Alice have made a  debut album to be proud of

Flowered Up: Wolf Alice have made a debut album to be proud of

“Yeah – kinda weird! I don’t think anyone expected the album to be sitting where it is at the moment. It’s nice though, and word seems to be spreading.

“Sometimes you can’t help yourself having a look, searching ‘Wolf Alice’ on Twitter or whatever, and it’s all a bit overwhelming really.”

It’s deserved, and in a sense it’s everything you’ve worked towards. It must still come as a shock though.

“Yes, but at the end of the day those things are numbers, aren’t they. It’s not really what’s important … but we certainly weren’t expecting it.”

I recall hearing how fellow Glastonbury 2015 guest Paul Weller, when The Jam signed to Polydor in 1977, making out he was more excited by having found an old Who badge down his sofa. So is, ‘They’re just numbers’ Joff’s variation on that ‘cautious of fame’ theme?

“Well … I think we can all be in agreement that numbers don’t equal quality. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

He should really avoid such hackneyed expressions like the plague, but we’ll gloss over that, not least as he was super-excited at the prospect of Wolf Alice’s second Glastonbury Festival.

“Yep. Last year we were at the Peel Stage, and this year we’re at the Park …”

Glastonbury Heroes: Wolf Alice enjoyed a triumphant set in Somerset last weekend

Glastonbury Heroes: Wolf Alice enjoyed a triumphant set in Somerset last weekend

Having reminded myself of that footage from 2014, you were definitely on an emotional high back then too.

“Oh yeah! It was probably the most nervous we’d ever been. To play on that iconic stage, having all been there as kids to watch people, with our mouths open, thinking this is so incredible …

“Not that we didn’t enjoy last year, but I think it’s going to be a lot more of an enjoyable experience this time.”

The 22-year-old reveals that his first Glastonbury was in 2010. So who impressed him most on that occasion?

“I’m racking my brain, but don’t think I saw many headline bands that year. I do remember seeing The Dead Weather.

“But the wonderful thing about Glastonbury is that – and this sounds awful, being in a band and as a music-head – the most fun I’ve had there had nothing to do with music.

“It was more a case of running around a field with my mates, getting kind of blind drunk.”

Despite the sheer size of the whole event these days, and be it down to the leylines or whatever, it still seems to retain that magical feel, all these years on.

First EP: Wolf Alice's Blush

First EP: Wolf Alice’s Blush

“Yeah. It’s a strange one. There’s definitely a different vibe there, one very unique to Glastonbury. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And that’s just about going, let alone playing.

“It’s so amazing just to be part of something so iconic. It’s almost a British institution.”

I take it from that you plan to stick around long after your 5pm set on Friday?

“We’ve got Saturday and Sunday off, so we’ll probably spend that … getting blind drunk and running around a field!”

Any bands in particular you want to catch between those mad mud sprints?

“Yeah – a bunch of people, as we’ve been discussing on the way down. I want to see King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, while Young Fathers could be quite cool.

“I also want to see Swim Deep’s set, mates of ours who’ll be on the Other Stage …”

Actually, Austin Williams from Swim Deep joined the band on piano for a BBC backstage Glasto session which hopefully you can still find, their fantastic cover of The Scissor Scissors’ 2004 hit Take Your Mama including Sympathy for the Devil–like backing vocals.

It’s a wonderful rendition, the ever-so-cool Ellie and her four mates in great voice, the lead singer struggling to get her head around the lyrics at one stage and getting giggly.

That humour seems typically Wolf Alice, despite the sheer ferocity of some of the songs and the fact that their name is taken from an Angela Carter short story about a child raised by wolves.

Take by way of further example their inspired cover of Katy Perry’s Roar or last year’s Glasto surprise, a beguiling take on Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game.

They’re clearly enjoying life together at present, basking in the glory of that first LP’s release and the reaction to it. You could say, on the 150th anniversary of a certain Lewis Carroll creation, it’s a case of Wolf Alice in Wonderland.

Creature Songs: The second Wolf Alice EP

Creature Songs: The second Wolf Alice EP

I decided not to run this past Joff, but asked if there were ever any doubts. Every band has its low points, after all.

“Yeah. I’m not blowing our own trumpet by saying we’re successful, but half the battle in getting any level of success is a certain percentage of confidence.

“You’ve got to be able to see your end goal and it’s got to be obtainable. So I think that was always at the back of our minds.

“That said, everyone has their shit days, when you think, ‘Bollocks, I quit!’”

So will success go to their heads?

“Yes! Definitely! Number one, I’m going to get a helicopter straight out of Glastonbury, straight into the rich band.”

Joff pauses for thought, then adds, “OK, no … I should hope not.”

Maybe you could get your ‘suave punk bassist’ Theo Ellis, who apparently loves a little permanent body etching, a new helicopter tattoo instead.

“Yeah, maybe! He’s racking them up is old Theo.”

There can’t be much of him left without a tattoo, can there … without getting graphic.

“Probably … he might turn into a black and white doodle himself.”

So is it singing drummer Joel Amey who instigates the partying off stage, leading you around muddy fields after a few drinks? Or are you all secretly very level-headed?

First Love: Wolf Alice's debut album, My Love Is Cool

First Love: Wolf Alice’s debut album, My Love Is Cool

“Yeah, I think so. But it’s just that Glasto thing. Everybody just kind of loses their inhibitions … in the best possible way.”

Is there a big difference between the Ellie Rowsell we see live and hear on record and the supposedly ‘quietly polite’ Archway lass (who turns 23 this month) you know off stage?

“Well, I would hope so. This is the strange thing – people thing they know people and think they have some kind of relationship with them.”

Fans in general do tend to think they have some kind of ownership through buying an artist’s records and seeing them at the front of a stage.

“Yes, especially front-people. What I find strange is people putting others on pedestals. It’s fine to put the work on a pedestal if you like it. That’s fantastic.

“But there’s also that other level of fanaticism and that ‘I love you’ line. It doesn’t really compute.”

The official band PR suggests that behind the ‘effortlessly visceral’ Ellie, guitarist Joff is the ‘insular romantic, picking out folk tunes on an acoustic backstage then noodling the hell out of his solos when the lights go up’. Is that about right?

“Oh really? I see! I know the girl who wrote that, so I’ll ask. Ha! I don’t know. I do like to keep myself to myself sometimes.

“Touring is quite full-on, and there are always a lot of people around, in your face, so quite a lot of the time I do tend to take a back-seat.”

Close Encounter: The breakthrough Wolf Alice single, Fluffy

Close Encounter: The breakthrough Wolf Alice single, Fluffy

It must seem like an age since February 2013’s debut single Fluffy signalled the start of a public clamour for this Camden outfit.

They have after all slowly worked towards this big moment, their sound evolving, giving us a bit of everything en route, via that year’s Blush EP then last year’s Creature Songs EP, alternating between indie ballads, folky anthems, and Hole-like ‘grunge screamers with big poppy choruses’.

And all the way along there have been plenty of live dates in Europe and the US, the band ‘noodling away’ on their apprenticeship while fighting not to be pigeon-holed.

So has this album seemed a long time in coming?

“Oh well, yeah! For me and Ellie it’s coming up to six years since we set out, and for the rest it’s three or four years, or something like that.

“But I think we’ve done it right. A lot of bands get to a point and release an album when they’re not ready and the songs aren’t ready, and they haven’t quite got the fan-base either.

“They seem to think if you release an album based on hype, it will do well. But it’s been proved these last couple of years that doesn’t really work.

“You need that fan-base that buys tickets to come to your shows, gets involved and has enough of a narrative to get into and stay with the band.”

Giant Peach: A Wolf Alice crowd favourite

Giant Peach: A Wolf Alice crowd favourite

I suppose the fact that you’ve reworked a few crowd favourites on this album shows how you’ve moved on during that past couple of years. I loved the songs as they were, but you can see how you’ve progressed all the same.

“Definitely. What we’re producing now is a lot more … you know ….”

He falters there. Is it a bit more ‘you’?

“I should hope so, and I think it’s chilled out a bit since the earlier stuff. We were maybe overly-loud and overly ferocious then.

“But I think that was a reaction to not being listened to in the beginning. Now we’ve got to a point where we’ve been able to show another side as well.”

And hone that spirit a bit?

“Yeah, definitely.”

So how much of an influence was producer Mike Crossey (who previously worked with Arctic Monkeys and Foals, among others) on the album? And was the band’s choice?

“Erm, he was recommended by the label, and he was alright … yeah.”

Joff seems a little reticent to say too much. I try again. It got a bit intense at times in the studio over your five-week recording stint in London’s Wood Green, didn’t it?

“Yeah, but I’m sure it does with everyone, really, and he’s good at getting a good performance out of you.”

Judging by the results, he’s not wrong, and My Love Is Cool is a joy to behold, a sparkling debut with so much depth.

Friendship Group: Wolf Alice's Bros

Friendship Group: Wolf Alice’s Bros

It’s stunning in places for these ears, from the Smoke Fairies-like ethereal feel of measured opener Turn to Dust and the already-familiar but neatly-reworked Bros – where we really get started – onwards.

There are traces of Harriet Wheeler in Ellie’s vocals on both, before the blown-away qualities of slow-building powerhouse You Love’s Whore, complete with its glorious stop-start structure, our front-girl finally going ballistic around the three and a half minute mark.

That seamless switch between breathy and manic continues on You’re a Germ, Joel vocally shadowing on the lead-up to a mighty chorus, while Lisbon takes me back to the sheer indie pop of The Primitives.

Alternatively, Silk carries a moody undercurrent reminiscent of The The, with gallons of invention, anthemic in places amid Catatonia-esque mass vocals, its huge sound never too polished.

The more laidback Freazy is in effect Wolf Alice’s theme tune and this album’s title track, joyously-catchy and the perfect statement that leads us to the guitar-happy rock fruit that is Giant Peach. Imagine Can’s Mother Sky crossed with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.

In comes Joel at that supercharged moment for the more dreamy Swallowtail, his own dulcet tones working a treat as we gather pace ahead of a mighty finish, Ellie given a welcome breather ahead of the sweet electronica of Soapy Water.

There’s no mistaking the unmistakable opening bars of the frantic, thrilling Fluffy from there, again subtly rearranged to great effect, taking me back to Elastica at their best.

And like the album itself, it’s not a second too long, The Wonderwhy soon seeing us out in reflective style on an album this cool collective can truly be proud of.

You can judge for yourself of course, and I recommend catching them live while you’re at it. And beyond Glastonbury, Wolf Alice have more big festival dates coming up in the UK and Europe, including Leeds and Reading, Jersey Live, Latitude, Longitude, and T in the Park.

Then there’s an eight-date tour, heading between Bristol Academy (September 16) and Brixton Academy (September 26).

Float Upstream: Wolf Alice have taken to the indie scene like, erm ... musicans to the water

Float Upstream: Wolf Alice have taken to the indie scene like, erm … musicans to the water

That also takes in Birmingham Institute (September 17), Glasgow ABC (September 19), Newcastle University (September 21), Sheffield Plug (September 22), Southampton Guildhall (September 23), and Manchester Albert Hall (September 25), the latter giving me the initial excuse for talking to the band.

“We’ve toured pretty extensively over the last couple of years, and while I don’t think we’ve done the Albert Hall up there before, we played The Ritz not too long ago, which was super-cool.”

With that, Joff had to break away, running back to rejoin the band transport and head further west ahead of his big weekend.

What a winner it proved to be too, and you can still catch their 45-minute set via the BBC website at time of going to press.

Starting with a ‘sit up and take notice’ Fluffy, a dynamic You’re a Germ and an intense Your Lover’s Whore, they were straight out of the traps, but the epitome of charm and mischief between songs.

There were three songs from Blush and two from Creature Songs in a set identical to a secret gig on the William’s Green stage the previous night, by all accounts.

A beaming Ellie declared the band were ‘having the best time ever’, despite heavy rain from part-way through.

While she clearly owns the camera, she struggled with her mic. stand, employing commendable limbo skills to carry on singing ‘Don’t leave me here’ (rather fittingly) from the floor on The Wonderwhy, Joff soon coming to the rescue.

Think Pink: Ellie, in the dress that beguiled Glastonbury first time around, and the band take a break

Think Pink: Ellie, in the dress that beguiled Glastonbury first time around, and the band take a break

The weather was inclement by the time we reached Bros, Theo announcing, “Everyone’s f*^*ing friends in this field, so let’s all have a dance’.

And after Joff implored the crowd to ‘get ready to go hard’, Giant Peach took the vibe to new levels, inspiring a mud-charged mass pogo.

Theo told the assembled it had all been a ‘dream come true’ before finale Moaning Lisa Smile, Ellie soon ‘out of control’, gliding aloft a sea of hands during a memorable bout of crowd-surfing. briefly returning to help Joel out on drums before heading back out there.

It’s been an amazing year for Wolf Alice, and we’re only half-way through. Where they go from here is irrelevant to a point, but I can’t see why they shouldn’t take it up a whole ‘nother notch.

Until then, they have every right to revel in what they’ve achieved so far. And their love is indeed cool.

To find out all the latest from the band, including details of this year’s festival dates and the September tour, head to www.wolfalice.co.uk.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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One Response to Cool as Wonderland – in conversation with Wolf Alice

  1. Pingback: Into 2016 … and 103,000 hits can’t be bad | writewyattuk

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