Wolf Alice are not just another indie band. After the runaway success of debut ‘My Love Is Cool’, the London four-piece used their platform to advocate for refugees and motivate their fans to vote. As they prepare to return with an angrier, catchier, just plain greater second album, singer Ellie Rowsell is starting to look suspiciously like a modern icon - not that she’d admit it herself, as Barry Nicholson finds when he meets them in London
,There’s a brief scene in On The Road, director Michael Winterbottom’s upcoming docu-drama hybrid set against the backdrop of Wolf Alice’s 2015 UK tour, in which a roadie jokingly asks one of Ellie Rowsell’s friends if the frontwoman was more talkative when the pair were at school together. “She does talk,” comes the whip-smart reply. “She just doesn’t talk to you.”
I’m reminded of that scene as I watch bassist Theo Ellis, guitarist Joff Oddie and drummer Joel Amey goofing off with props they’ve found strewn about the East London studio where their NME cover shoot is taking place, staging wacky races astride miniature fibreglass bikes, boats and sports cars while Rowsell sits off to one side, wordlessly scrolling through her iPhone. It’s not that she’s aloof or unfriendly so much as introverted and withdrawn; she spends much of our interview shifting around restlessly in her seat, her voice rarely registering above a whisper. By her own admission, she’s prone to spending a lot of time lost in thought, “constantly musing about and mulling over things”. It’s a habit that gave Wolf Alice’s new album ‘Visions Of A Life’, due for release on September 29, its name.
“Even as a kid,” she says, “I would play pretend and wish I was an adult, and now that I’m an adult I sometimes wish I was someone else. That phrase just felt like a poetic way of expressing it. Then there’s the album artwork, a picture of a girl in a frock dancing around a podium with a horse’s head on it – she obviously had some vision of a life that she was playing out. It’s my auntie in the picture, and she actually did become a dancer, so that vision came true. It really resonated with me because I spent my whole childhood not playing with toys but playing inside my head and acting it out. That’s what our songs are, I suppose – visions and little bits of life that somehow get made into music.”
Whatever visions Wolf Alice had of their lives prior to the release of their 2015 debut ‘My Love Is Cool’, the response to that record swiftly surpassed even the wildest, most out-there of them. The week of its release, when it entered the charts at Number Two, “was probably the most surreal experience of the whole cycle – how high-octane it was, how unbelievably happy everyone was feeling,” says Ellis. “We had a gig in New York, then a TV show in Los Angeles, then we came back to play Glastonbury and the record was out so we were reading everything people were writing about us, digesting all this stuff…”
“It felt like a whole year’s worth of feelings and experiences condensed into seven days,” adds Amey. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a young band rocketed to sudden first-album success who spend the next 18 months travelling the world, winning awards, building a fiercely loyal fanbase and generally having a whale of a time until they have to step off the rollercoaster and write another one. It’s the stuff ‘difficult’ second albums are made of – the discombobulating highs of success and the decompression period that follows when you finally come up for air.
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“There was definitely a comedown,” nods Ellis. “Coming off tour, especially after that long, when you’re used to those highs every night – it was intense and you don’t quite know how to fit back into the world. You’ve been dipping in and out of your friends and family’s lives for so long, you end up feeling a bit weird and isolated.”
Recorded in LA with Paramore and M83 producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, ‘Visions Of A Life’ is the antithesis of the overthought, undercooked follow-up album – it’s a big, bold expression of this band’s immense potential, in which choruses (and emotions) are communicated in letters 40ft high. Yet it’s also a product of the “weird time” Wolf Alice went through when their last album cycle ended. “I do listen to it and feel like it’s on the sadder side, or the darker side, of things,” admits Rowsell. “I think it’s quite hard to write songs about being happy; it’s easier to pour your misery into your lyrics.”
Among its 12 tracks you’ll encounter soaring, shoegazey odes to departed friends (‘Heavenward’), searingly graphic depictions of sexual and emotional manipulation (‘Formidable Cool’) and, on ‘Sky Musings’, a panic attack at 40,000 feet, where an increasingly manic Rowsell finds herself, ‘On top of the world, 23 years old and you’re acting like it’s over’.
That song, she explains, “is about how people have deeper thoughts and more tears to shed on long-haul flights – apparently it’s to do with being neither here nor there and your life being totally in the hands of someone else. So every time I’d go on a long flight and watch a romcom with a glass of wine, I’d find myself having one of these mini meltdowns. It’s quite a dark song, but it must’ve been quite funny for anyone who actually saw me sobbing at Miss Congeniality…”
Then there’s lead single ‘Yuk Foo’, two minutes and 13 seconds of feral, fire-breathing rage described by Ellis as “the most abrasive, slap-you-in-the-face song on the record”, and by Rowsell as “like a vomit of emotion. I was angry about a lot of things when I wrote that song, and it was meant as a ‘f**k you’ to the expectations people place on you, whether that’s as a friend, a lover or an artist.” Nevertheless, she insists, “We weren’t out to shock people by going, ‘Look how heavy we sound now!’ It wasn’t anything like that. It was actually one of the funnest songs on the album to record. It’s not meant to be taken completely seriously.”
It’s true, ‘Visions Of A Life’ is not all doom and gloom: there are moments of air-punching euphoria and self-affirmation, too. The trick was not being afraid to lean into them. “The main thing we learned from making the first album is that you only regret the things you don’t do,” says Rowsell. “This time around, if we had an inkling of an idea, even if it seemed a bit silly, we’d try it out and see what happened.”
That proved to be the case with the shimmering synthpop of second single ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’, a hopelessly romantic, roll-the-credits love song about what can happen when you throw caution to the wind. The result is not only the standout track of this album, but of Wolf Alice’s entire career to date.
“I wanted to write a song that wasn’t at all subtle – it’s meant to be totally unashamed,” says Rowsell. “At first the song was going to stay in that mindset of meekness and self-doubt, but I just found that too depressing – I wanted the happy Hollywood ending, so I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going back and writing the ending that I want!’ And I was superstitious about having that song end on a sad note. I felt like that would be a sign of something.”
One ending Rowsell couldn’t write, unfortunately, was the one that she (and about 13 million others) wanted for this summer’s general election, though Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable rise from media punchline to prime-minister-in-waiting has given them hope that meaningful change is more attainable than ever.
Ever since they put the Bands 4 Refugees project together in late 2016, Wolf Alice’s interest and involvement in politics has grown. While their role in the general election campaign was lower-key than Corbyn’s meme-wielding phalanx of grime MCs, the band actively and enthusiastically stumped for him and Rowsell also recorded a video for the Labour Party urging young people to register to vote. Nor were they the only ones to get involved: empowered by the reach of social media and the starkness of the choice on offer (“There’s no grey areas any more; it’s literally a choice between good and evil,” declares Ellis) more bands of Wolf Alice’s generation seem to be jumping into the political arena.
“The stakes have been higher over the last couple of years, and events like Trump and Brexit have made people realise that if you don’t get involved, the wrong things can happen,” says Oddie. “That’s why if you do have a platform, it’s so important to try to do something about it.”
“After the referendum last year, I kept hearing friends of mine, and even journalists, talking about Brexit in a much clearer, more informed way,” agrees Rowsell. “The problem was that it all came way too late. Why weren’t we having this conversation before? So when the snap election got called, it was like, ‘OK, let’s do everything we did after Brexit, but let’s do it right now. There’s this image of politics as posh white men in the Houses of Parliament talking in political jargon, but you don’t need to be eloquent and hyper-intelligent to talk about this stuff.”
Did you get to meet Corbyn during the campaign? “No, we did go to a few events he was at, but we never got to meet him,” she replies. “It seemed like anywhere he went he was absolutely mobbed and bombarded. He’s like the biggest indie band in the world.”
“It was nuts, like the second coming or something,” confirms Ellis. “There was one event we went to in Dalston where he was there to galvanise musicians and artists who were campaigning for Labour, and every grime MC you’ve ever heard of had him surrounded, trying to get a photo with him. It was amazing for me to see a politician in that light. You never saw people clambering over each other to get a selfie with Gordon Brown. He really has galvanised a generation.”
So too, in their own way, have Wolf Alice. Having spent their first three years as perennial next-big-things, ‘My Love Is Cool’ established them as one of those rare British bands who actually delivered on the hype, and to their young, enthusiastic fanbase, their music has become life-changing. With ‘Visions Of A Life’, that bond between the band and their fans looks set to intensify; even on their recent US tour, says Ellis, “we noticed these factions of kids on the east and west coasts who would follow us around from gig to gig – God knows where they got the money from or what their parents were up to, but they seemed to be at every show before we were.”
Amey mentions a friend of his who works in a guitar shop, “who’s noticed that whenever a young girl comes in to buy a guitar and he asks who she’s influenced by, 90 per cent of the time they’ll say Ellie’s name. That’s so cool. It makes you feel like something is happening.” Rowsell listens to her bandmate telling this story and looks slightly mortified; she might talk earnestly about her desire for more girls to pick up guitars and the need for more female role models in rock music, but she has difficulty thinking of herself as one of those figures. By this point, however, that lies beyond her control. Rowsell may have her own visions of a life, but you suspect she knows that the ones her band inspire in others are every bit as important.