It seems like it’s taken an age to come around, but the new Wolf Alice LP, Blue Weekend, finally lands today (June 4th), with the band set to return to the road for a full UK and Irish tour next January, for their first headline shows since 2018.
And I’d say the new record’s every bit as committed and strong as powerhouse lead single ‘The Last Man on Earth’, as further pre-releases ‘No Hard Feelings’ and ‘Smile’ suggested – and day of release addition ‘How Can I Make it OK?’ – as the band unleash a worthy follow-up to memorable debut LP My Love is Cool and Mercury Prize winner Visions of a Life.
You probably know the history, but Wolf Alice started out a decade ago as a duo, Ellie Rowsell (vocals, guitar) and Joff Oddie (guitar, vocals) soon joined by Theo Ellis (bass) and Joel Amey (drums, vocals). And they soon hit the ground running, 2015’s My Love Is Cool soaring to No.2 on the UK album charts and 2017 sophomore album Visions of a Life reaching that same position, bagging that Mercury Prize win (and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance).
In a career that’s also seen support slots for Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and Liam Gallagher, and with the band the subject of a film by revered director Michael Winterbottom, they played 187 shows on their headlining Visions of a Life world tour, including an Alexandra Palace sell-out, two more at Brixton Academy, and a key Pyramid Stage set at Glastonbury.
With all that in mind, it was no surprise that creating LP number three was a daunting task, all that success and subsequent time on the road – with many intercontinental flights, hotels and long bus journeys en route – taking its toll. But they’ve pulled it off somehow, decamping to Somerset to reconfigure just who they were, far away from festival stages, tour buses, awards shows and fans, cementing their friendship and setting to work on fledgling demos in a converted church.
Those demos evolved into Blue Weekend, produced by Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Bjork, Brian Eno, Florence and The Machine), who helped the band refine their sound somewhat. And it’s an album with Ellie’s laid-bare storytelling at its core, this dynamic four-piece embracing boldness and vulnerability in equal measure.
My interview came by way of internet beast, Zoom, back in early April (their management insisting we held back until now), this Luddite relieved after a few pre-interview tweaks in the technical department from his eldest daughter on seeing Epsom-born, Dorking-schooled, Hastings-based Joel (‘My days in East London are over. I had a good time when I was there though.’) pop up on my screen … and doubly so when London-based Ellie joined the feed a couple of minutes later.
The previous time I spoke to Ellie was in the autumn of 2017 (with a link here), when Visions of a Life was about to land and emulate the success of their debut album. And things have moved on hugely again since then, I suggested.
Joel: “Just a bit, yeah.”
But my first Wolf Alice interview was in late June 2015, when I traded words with bandmate Joff Oddie, en route for Glastonbury Festival. In fact, that was the day before the band’s memorable Park stage triumph, one year after they made a mighty impact on the John Peel stage.
At the time, they were at the top of the midweek UK charts with My Love is Cool, before a late flurry of sales for Florence and the Machine took Ms Welch and co. back to the top of the pile. Did that take my interviewees back, knowing where they were in that moment?
Joel: “I know where I was! I had to think about this the other day, as we’ve just announced that we’re doing the Glastonbury stream, and I was asked about my festival memories. There’s millions, but I vividly remember being in our soundman’s people carrier, with Ells and Theo, eating ice cream, him driving all the way. Very unglamorous but very Wolf Alice glamour – eating ice cream and thinking, ‘We’re No.1!’ All very strange.”
I recall Joff saying at the time how strange it all was, while admitting he couldn’t stop himself searching ‘Wolf Alice’ on the internet. I’m guessing you’re both over that sort of thing now, right?
Ellie: “Yeah, ha!”
Joel: “No comment!”
That was a landmark year for Wolf Alice, but you could argue that if Dave Grohl hadn’t broken his leg shortly before (Foo Fighters having to pull out of their Friday night top-of-the-bill slot accordingly, replaced by Florence and the Machine), you might have reached No.1 first time around.
Joel: “That was the rumour.”
Ellie: “Was that our first one?”
Joel: “Yeah, I just remember spending the whole weekend with people backstage saying, ‘Yeah, we always knew you were going to happen – cool!’. Then on Sunday we were No.2, and they weren’t talking to me anymore!”
Fame, fame, fatal fame; it can play hideous tricks on the brain, as some Manc once wrote.
“Actually, Markus Dravs, who we made the new record with, produced that Florence record, and we had a little funny chat about that.”
I’m not sure how much of it is down to Markus, but this new LP is a ‘big record’, if you know what I mean. I was only a couple of listens in when I spoke to Joel and Ellie, but I told them I felt there was much of the spirit of lead single, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ on there. It’s a grand-sounding monster all-round. It seems to be their big pop statement, in a way.
Joel: “Yeah … I mean … yeah! I think it’s probably … actually, I’m going to stop myself saying anything else …I was going to say something weird.”
You’re very welcome to, as far as I’m concerned.
Joel: “No, I just feel like … the people I’ve shown it to that have listened to our previous records and I know really appreciate where we’ve come from and why we make those kind of musical decisions … well, there’s a directness and an emotion to this record which seems to hit people and make them connect straight away.
“It’s less about ‘listen to this drum-fill’ … it’s lyrics and melody, and Blue Weekend just kind of has that from start to finish … I’m really proud of it.”
Quite right too. I’m not suggesting you ever lost your way, but I get the impression this was about rediscovering your friendships for each other, with a unified vibe across this record. If this was your set to be your difficult third album, you’ve somehow cracked it. It’s a proper band record and fits the vibe of what’s been a testing year for us all.
Joel: “Yeah, it was a strange time to make a record, and I don’t think there’s many people I could have got through the process with if it wasn’t with Ellie, Joff and Theo. You’re lucky to be with your best mates at a time like that, and lucky to be able to spend time making a record.”
And where was this converted church where you recorded the new album?
Ellie: “Somewhere in Somerset … just somewhere we found on Airbnb, near Glastonbury.”
Joel: “Mary owned the Airbnb, and it was made up of reclaimed pieces of the Cutty Sark, after it burned down.”
Talking of Glastonbury, this year’s version (I know, it’s already happened – I refer you to my earlier frustration at having to wait so long to publish this interview) is going to be a completely different festival experience for you, but still offers a huge opportunity. And I get the impression from the way you play together as a band that’s it going to be intimate … somehow.
Ellie: “Yeah, I don’t really know what to expect, but because the line-up is so reduced, I feel unbelievably flattered to be asked to do it.
“And yeah, it’s going to be intimate because it’s just going to be ourselves in front of our crew and probably just a few people there, but then it’s live-streamed globally, so anyone who’s anywhere can watch it if they have £20 or whatever… so that feels even more scary in a way. It’s a really unique experience that I’m just thrilled to be a part of.”
Seeing you play ‘The Last Man on Earth’ live at the Alexandra Palace Theatre for Later With … Jools Holland, I get the impression this could be a massive moment for you. And that’s a huge single, make no mistake. It carries elements of everything from ‘70s James Bond themes to The Beatles and even Slade’s ‘How Does It Feel?’
Ellie: “Ah, thank you … I think! Ha.”
Joel: “I love Slade. I’m almost more happy that you said Slade than The Beatles. That’s cool.”
We’ve already mentioned Florence and the Machine stopping the debut album reach No.1 in the UK, and then Visions of a Life was kept off the top by Shania Twain. So who’s going to deny you this time?
Elie: “Oh, I don’t know. Someone will come back from the grave or something, knowing our luck.”
Joel: “Yeah, let’s say The Beatles and Slade. The Beatles are back, they’re all alive again, and they’re No.1.”
Were most of the songs on this album ready to record before the pandemic arrived?
Ellie: “We’d written everything, and I think that would have been the hardest bit to do during lockdown, so we were very lucky that we got that bit out of the way. Then we had to finish it all, and again were very lucky we were already in the studio … and that it was a residential studio.
“The thing that made it very hard was that there were no distractions. We got a bit too fully immersed in the whole experience, to a point where we couldn’t really see the wood from the trees, eventually having to stop and take a break … (mutters) rather than go mad. Ha!
“It was hard, but I was just so grateful to have that to focus on, because I really don’t know what … people kept asking, ‘What did you do during the lockdown?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing’, and they’d say, ‘What, you didn’t learn how to make banana bread?’”
Focus wasn’t a problem, I guess.
Ellie: “No … we made an album, and my head was so …”
Joel: “Yeah, innit!”
Ellie: “I literally didn’t have an ounce left.”
Joel: “I’m so glad to hear you say that, because of this guilt that I haven’t written another record during lockdown.”
Ellie: “Yeah, or that I haven’t started my own business … or learned another language.”
Joel: “Yeah, innit! Or bought Bitcoin at the right time!”
Of course, Paul Weller’s probably made about four more albums during the last year.
“Yeah, he probably has. And an NFT, and everything else.”
That flummoxed me, and even after I’d looked it up online, I still don’t truly get what the hell that is. Something to do with cryptocurrency, apparently. But maybe you already know that. In fact, maybe I just misheard Joel. Perhaps he was off for his tea soon, eager to get through a day of gruelling interviews that will sit around gathering dust for a couple of months (sorry, complaining again).
Anyway, what have you two missed most this last year that you might not have realised would be an issue back in March 2020?
Ellie: “Shows. Post-show parties. Ha! Dancing.”
Joel: “I’m trying to remember what we did after the release of ‘Yuk Foo’, because once the album process starts, we’ll be in the basement of an HMV waiting to go upstairs … so this is different, but it’s very much like that for me at the moment. People are like, ‘The sun’s out!’ But I’m also watching the telly a lot.”
According to Joff in my first Wolf Alice interview, Joel had a bit of a reputation back then as chief instigator of the Wolf Alice after-show party. Not as if he owned up to that. But this Glastonbury Festival may well prove a challenge in that respect, I suggested, guessing it wouldn’t be so easy to slip backstage to see friends and catch other bands on the bill.
Joel: “Not for me, Malcolm. I know exactly what I’m going to do! No, I don’t really. Actually, Alana from Haim texted me yesterday. We don’t know how it’s going to work, but it will be so nice to watch the music, and hopefully if we’re doing it the same day as other people …
“Their last record has blown me away, so I’ll just be happy to watch Haim … and then go off to a caravan somewhere. That’ll be nice.”
And I guess you’re itching to get back out on the road again.
Ellie: “Of course, yeah!”
It’s been a long time, after all.
Joel: “Yep, but … January … there’s a few tickets left! Where are you based?”
Not far from Preston, Lancashire. And my youngest has already snapped up tickets with friends for Manchester Apollo.
Joel: “Ah, that’s cool. I remember playing Preston … 53 Degrees, after a particularly heavy night beforehand with Superfood … when we lost Ryan for a bit.”
That’ll be Ryan Malcolm of Dirty Hit label-mates Superfood, a Birmingham outfit who played their ‘last show for a while’ at La Scala in London two years ago.
Perhaps I should have asked a bit more about that big night out in May 2014. I saw nine shows at 53 Degrees that year but somehow missed that occasion. But Ellie and Joel had more interviews lined up, and my time was ebbing away. Reckon someone can fill me in on all that now, mind. Pray tell, pop kids.
Blue Weekend is out tomorrow, June 4th, via Dirty Hit Records, and available on all digital platforms, plus vinyl, CD and cassette.
UK & Ireland tour, January 2022: Wed 5 Glasgow Barrowland (extra date), Fri 7 Glasgow Barrowland (sold out), Sat 8 Glasgow Barrowland (sold out), Sun 9 Newcastle City Hall (sold out), Mon 10 Norwich UEA (sold out), Wed 12 Manchester Apollo (sold out), Thu 13 Manchester Apollo (extra date), Fri 14 Sheffield Academy (sold out), Sat 15 Liverpool University (sold out), Tue 18 London Apollo (sold out), Wed 19 London Apollo (extra date), Sat 22 Southampton Guildhall (sold out), Sun 23 Bexhill On Sea De La Warr Pavilion (sold out), Mon 24 Dublin Olympia Theatre (sold out), Tue 25 Dublin Olympia Theatre (sold out), Thu 27 Birmingham Academy (sold out), Fri 28 Plymouth Pavilions, Sun 30 Bristol Academy (sold out), Mon 31 Bristol Academy (sold out).
The cinematic premiere of a short film celebrating Blue Weekend – an album-length feature exploring the camaraderie, nights out and relationships that form the backbone of the LP, directed by Jordan Hemingway (Gucci, Raf Simons, Comme Des Garcons, and promo videos for ‘The Last Man on Earth’, ‘Smile’ and ‘No Hard Feelings’ – takes place at Picturehouse Central, Soho, London on Thursday, June 10th, with screenings at 6.30pm and 8.45pm, the band performing a special acoustic set before each. You can watch the film trailer here
You know, Malcolm, I never realised there were neolithic stones at the Glastonbury site (other than Mick and Keef, of course). That’s worth the price of admission alone.
Live and Learn Day, eh, Bruce. I’ve just thumbed through Julian Cope’s splendid The Modern Antiquarian, and not so much as a mention. I’m thinking neo-Neolithic.