Wolf Alice, back through the Looking Glass – the Ellie Rowsell interview

Radiator Radio: Wolf Alice (from the left – Ellie, Theo, Joff, Joel), straight out of London, and heading your way soon

Ellie Rowsell sounded croaky when she answered the phone. Whether it was down to an early start, testing those vocal cords at rehearsals with her band, Wolf Alice, in East London, or standard rock’n’roll lifestyle fare, I’m not certain. Either way, I put it to this mightily-talented lead singer and guitarist that she’s living the dream right now.

“Erm … perhaps some people’s dream, yeah,” was her faltering response. Not hers then?

“Yeah, in many ways.”

She sounded laidback, not entirely convinced, but after the last couple of years she’s had with  bandmates Joff Oddie (guitar, vocals), Theo Ellis (bass) and Joel Amey (drums, vocals), it’s understandable being a little blasé about it all.

At the time, the four-piece were limbering up for European and UK dates and the release of second album, Visions of a Life. And four weeks on Wolf Alice are a few dates into that schedule, those new songs having gone down a storm, as I was sure they would after my first couple of listens.

Last week they featured live on BBC 2’s Later with … Jools Holland, the host and former writewyattuk interviewee  also asking Ellie and bandmate Theo Ellis about their involvement in Michael Winterbottom’s recently-released, part-fictionalised documentary, On The Road. Not as if they’re the prime focus of the film. It’s about a ‘new management rep’, played by Leah Harvey, joining the band’s retinue for a 16-date UK tour alongside a ‘regular crew member’, played by James McArdle. There’s nothing scripted from Wolf Alice’s point of view though, and while the main pair get it together, making this essentially a road movie love story, it also offers an inside view of the touring life, often candid and glamour-free.

Asked by the NME’s Alex Flood last month (with a link to the interview here) why he chose Wolf Alice, the director said, “’Cos they’re the best band in the world! There were lots of little coincidences too. I like Angela Carter and they’re named after an Angela Carter short story. Theo used to live next door to me and he was in the same class at school as my daughter. Their manager used to work with the band Ash who were the starting point for this idea. Then we met them and they were really up for it.”

The Blackburn-born film-maker, whose past credits include 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon comedy ‘vehicle’ The Trip, also mentioned the ‘intense intimacy’ of Wolf Alice, as you’ll see that for yourself in the film, and also through their interviews and ultimately their music.

As it is, Ellie and her bandmates are no strangers to the flicks, also featuring on 2016’s Ghostbusters and this year’s T2 Trainspotting soundtracks. And the interest generated from those projects has done no harm in raising their profile, Visions of a Life having shot straight to No.2 in the UK album charts, held off the top by Shania Twain, two years after Florence + the Machine kept debut LP, My Love Is Cool, off that same spot, in the week Ms Welch’s band replaced the Foo Fighters as Glastonbury headliners, taking the national focus off the band that stole the show on the Park stage.

That first LP also reached No. 12 on the US Billboard alternative album chart, with Wolf Alice nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, an Ivor Novello, a Brit (breakthrough act) and a Grammy (best rock performance), while taking an NME award (best live band).

When we spoke, I’d only had chance to hear the new album twice through, but already knew I could dispense of any talk of tricky follow-up territory. We had another winner. I put it to Ellie that the last LP’s reception didn’t seem to have fazed them in presenting their next creation. If anything, they’d raised their game, with an accomplished piece of work.

“Um … thank you! I think we were really lucky in a sense that we were so eager to make new music for such a long time that we had that kind of creative energy stored up. That made it easier. Also, we had quite an eventful two years in which we weren’t really short of inspiration. Taking all that into account, we were lucky to skip that so-called second album anxiety.”

So is this record really a story of their life on the road since that debut?

“Yeah, definitely. Most of the songs from My Love is Cool were written when we were much younger, and I guess a lot of life has happened to us. That makes it easier.”

The best bands don’t look to make the same album twice over, always moving on, whatever the plaudits of the last. And you don’t appear to be happy placed in a particular box.

“Yeah, but I don’t feel Visions of a Life is too far from the first album, just perhaps more mature, with a variation of styles and dynamics, but all within the realms of pop music with a guitar band feel to it.”

That’s certainly the case. The songs flit from shoegaze-driven opener on Heavenward to the punk energy of Yuk Foo and crossover-pop on Beautifully Unconventional. Then I hear Strawberry Switchblade meet The Ting Tings on Don’t Delete the Kisses, hints of The Sundays on Planet Hunter, a crowd-pleasing air on Formidable Cool (between Garbage and The Cure maybe), and a Grace Slick/Sandy Denny approach on After the Zero Hour, taking us back to their psych-folk roots maybe. And then a twisting and turning epic title track sees us home. Are those acts in your musical DNA?

“Yeah, definitely. We like all those styles you mention, but I don’t think we’d do a whole album of just one of those.”

Since I fired that list her way, I’d probably add PJ Harvey too. You get the idea, and this is a band that has impressed since that explosive debut single, Fluffy, four and half years ago. Actually, it’s now seven years since Ellie and co-founder Joff started kicking the idea of Wolf Alice around. Has her world domination theory gone to plan, or was there no such thing?

“I don’t know. It’s really hard. I like to set myself up for disappointment, so never allowed myself to set a goal. I just knew I was going to try really hard and wasn’t going to stop to think about where it was taking me. I think I’ll take all this in when I have a bit more hindsight.”

I got to speak to Joff when the first album came out, just before your 2015 triumph at Glastonbury. It was already pretty manic by then, and doesn’t seem to have slowed much since. Does there come a point where you get a bit blasé about all these exciting firsts if you’re not careful?

“Yeah, I think there is a danger of that. But I think also what happens is that you start to realise what are the important things to you. And because there are four of us we’re always there to pull each other back down to earth.”

Ellie also had a starring role this year with fellow writewyattuk interviewees alt-J, featuring on the wondrous 3WW. How did that come about?

“We have the same manager – not a very romantic story really! Joe (Newman) had a written part that he wanted my voice on, and I’ve toured with those boys, and they’re really lovely. He sent me this song with him singing my part, and I think it’s my – if I say it myself – my favourite alt-J song. I definitely wanted to do that, went along to the studio around the corner from our studio and laid it down. And I think their new album is their best yet – I love it.”

I agree, and those harmonies – you, Joe and Gus Unger-Hamilton – work so well.

“Yeah, I was really chuffed with that. It’s a beautiful song and I was really happy to be a part of it.”

Are you likely to feature on any of their live shows, or are you just too busy right now?

“I did Jools Holland’s show with them, but don’t think I’ll be doing any more. It’s just so low, that part, for my voice. It’s alright in a studio, but live … it’s one thing performing in front of an audience in your own band, but so scary for someone else.”

Ellie and Theo also saw their profile raised through setting up the Bands 4 Refugees movement, their positive reaction to the horrors of the migrant crisis unfolding, the lack of compassion showing in so many quarters shocking them into action; joining forces with Help Refugees. What’s more, on the run up to the General Election, Ellie was one of the key players in urging young people – fronting a Labour Party video – to register to vote before the deadline, making their voices heard. That’s pop as positive power, isn’t it?

“Yeah, I think you slowly come to terms with your power of influence as someone who has a small to medium-sized following online. It’s a scary thing to speak out, because there are always people you’re going to offend. But once you realise that’s never going to change and that you can never satisfy or please everybody, you can start to move past that and do what you think is potentially helpful and what is right. I think you have to do everything you can to stay hopeful. Nothing will get better if you’re without hope.”

Meanwhile, the Wolf Alice story continues apace. After multiple shows in Europe and the UK, the US, Australia and Japan on the mother of all two-year tours, they came off the road and it could well have been what they call the ‘classic story’ – ‘you slog your ass off to make your debut; you tour like a demon; you hit the heights; you get no sleep. Then, when you finally come off the road, you come home to an empty house.’ But instead of floundering or foundering, they channeled their energy, regrouping in London, spending intense weeks in rehearsals, working towards a wealth of new material.

Sound Visions: Joff Oddie, Ellie Rowsell, Joel Amey and Theo Ellis, aka Wolf Alice, from the floorboards up

Accordingly, the resultant LP is partly about dealing with their own elevation in the eyes of the industry, the band mentioning ‘disorientating details’, ‘miniature epiphanies and tiny apocalypses from an extreme ride and the lull that came after’. As Ellie put it, “The past two years were such amazing highs and then really extreme lows that we’ve never encountered before. That’s this album.”

With the bones of Visions of a Life in place, they headed to Los Angeles to turn those initial sketches- turned-songs into an album with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, best known for his work with Paramore and playing with Tori Amos, Nine Inch Nails and Beck. In fact, his ‘mad and cool’ bass with the latter at the Electric Picnic made a big impression on the band, who were in awe at getting to California to work with him. And recording at engineer Carlos De La Garza’s Music Friends studio in Eagle Rock, Meldal-Johnsen created a safe, collaborative environment for them to grow, but also pushing them further. As Joel described it, “He can play and hear notes you don’t even know exist. He’s working at such a high level that you just want to try and be on the same level.”

The album was mixed by Tom Elmhirst, whose recent credits include Adele’s ’25’, David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’, Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’, Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’ and London Grammar’s ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’. So how much of the album was down to Justin and Tom? Did you know what you wanted when you took your material to them?

“All the songs were written, and we had all the ideas of where we wanted to take them. I think both Justin and Tom realised those for us and made it easy for us to get to where we wanted to go. So we were really happy to work with both of them.”

Visions of a Life is fundamentally a personal, revealing album, a natural successor to My Love is Cool. And it’s an album packed with surprises for those who think they know what the band are about. Their progression and maturity as songwriters certainly shines on tracks like the sweet, slow-burning Don’t Delete the Kisses, the second single, ‘a sentimental love song for people who don’t do sentimental love songs until they find themselves there’.

I look at your picture and I smile. How awful is that? I’m like a teenage girl. I might as well write all over my notebook that ‘you rock my world’.

Sticking with the intimate approach, opener track – and fourth single – Heavenward was written about the death of a friend, with Ellie’s vocal performance somewhat sublime.

I’m gonna celebrate you forever. You taught us things we all should learn.

Meanwhile, Beautifully Unconventional, the third single, was written about a friend of Ellie’s. “My feelings towards her reminded me of the film Heathers, where everyone is a Heather and you find your other non-Heather.”

Friendship clearly means a great deal to a band who spend so much time in each other’s company. “It’s a weird thing,” says Theo. “I hope I’m not jinxing it by saying this but we really do spend a lot of time together. We know each other so well, intricately well, more than you would have in a marriage. It’s so close that it almost takes on a new state rather than like a relationship or like a friendship.” Yes, we’re clearly back to Michael Winterbottom’s description of the band’s togetherness.

Standing Ovation: The mighty Wolf Alice, still as cool as Wonderland, two years after their debut LP

Then of course there was the album’s lead single, Yuk Foo, and far more intense.

You bore me, you bore me to death. Well, deplore me? No, I don’t give a shit!’

Who’s that about then, Ellie?

“We wanted to make it open to interpretation, so that anyone who was frustrated at something could have it as their anthem.”

Actually, in Ellie’s case it was about being, “sick and fed up of certain expectations”. She added, “A lot of it is about being a young woman. Even the shit, everyday wolf-whistle thing. As I get older, I feel like ‘Why have I always put up with that?’ When I sing that kind of song, it’s everything that I want to do when that happens. I think almost everyone feels frustrated right now, don’t they?”

I hope you’ve had it translated into Cantonese or Mandarin to ensure it’s not rude, I add, mischievously.

“Sorry? Erm … no, I haven’t done that, but I’m sure it’s ok!”

Seriously though, there’s little sign of mellowing in the Wolf Alice camp from where I’m listening. And it’s done and dusted in 133 seconds. That’s the way to do it, eh?

“Ha! Yeah … it’s all good fun.”

After initial dates in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, Wolf Alice’s latest album tour continues at Mojo in Hamburg (Wednesday, November 1st), Luxor in Cologne (Thursday, November 2nd), and Melkweg in Amsterdam (Friday, November 3rd), before the UK and Irish leg starts five days later. Is Yuk Foo likely to end your shows at present? Because I’m not quite sure where you can go from there.

“No, we play it early on, so people can start with a high and push further than that. Hopefully, that kind of sets the bar!”

Tour Party: Wolf Alice are on their way, from Paris to Dublin, with plenty of points in between

Wolf Alice’s November dates: Wed 08 – Bristol O2 Academy, Thu 09 – Manchester O2 Apollo, Sat 11 – Glasgow Barrowland, Mon 13 – Newcastle O2 Academy, Wed 15 – Nottingham Rock City, Thu 16 – Birmingham O2 Academy, Fri 17 –  Norwich UEA, Sat 18 – Leeds O2 Academy, Mon 20 – Brighton Dome, Tue 21 – Southampton O2 Guildhall, Fri 24 – London Alexandra Palace, Mon 27 – Belfast Ulster Hall, Tue 28 – Dublin Olympia. For more information about the LP and ticket details, head here.

 

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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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