The Florin is the sort of unreconstructed Irish pub that is becoming harder and harder to find, even on London’s unfashionable Holloway Road. Racing on the telly. One beaten-up old pool table. Several beaten-up old geezers propping up the stained serving counter. A jukebox bleating out New Kids On The Block’s key-change monstrosity ‘This One’s For The Children’. Not a £12 pulled-pork burger on a ceramic tile in sight.
It was here that Wolf Alice played one of their very first gigs four years ago, as part of a local talent night that pitted them against an Elvis impersonator. “It was a bizarre show,” recalls singer Ellie Rowsell, pointing to where the stage once stood in the corner. “I remember being up there, playing to half a dozen people, and this man walking up to the front of the stage. He said to me, ‘Do you mind if I go out for a cigarette?’ I just mumbled back at him, ‘Uh, yeah, sure,’ mid-verse, and kept on singing.”
Later, they recorded the video to 2013 single ‘Fluffy’ here: a spoof that ended with them parodying their early ambitions by playing the same mini-stage. “Only we filled the place with so much dry ice that it set off all the fire alarms,” Ellie says. “The girl who was working here didn’t know how to turn them off. A fire engine turned up. We were all, uh, barred for life, I believe…”
Today, confidently flouting the ban, Wolf Alice are on the threshold of Something Big. They’ve almost sold out Brixton Academy, and the show’s not until September. Their spiky singles routinely make the Radio 1 playlist. And their long-awaited debut album will leave the Elvis impersonators of Holloway for dust.
The band are still recovering from the jet lag of a successful American tour as they array themselves in The Florin’s corner table one Thursday evening. Ellie, in a blousy halter-top, topaz necklace and jeans, looks teenage and unbothered. Her fellow founder-member and guitarist, Joff Oddie, sits on her right; dressed in a Ralph Lauren black-and-white checked shirt, he has an air of being slightly older, or at least posher, than everyone else. Next to him is drummer Joel Amey, an excitable joke machine in a Hawaiian shirt and dog tags. Finally, bassist Theo Ellis seems to be fronting some other band he hasn’t quite worked out the details of yet; with his bleach-blond short hair and boyish face, he’s pitched it somewhere between Marc Almond and White Rose Movement. He’s the most talkative and brash, argumentative even.
The entire band are drinking Guinness, and Ellie’s dad (whom she calls Rob) is buying. Her younger brother Kevin – a tall and awkward shade of 17 – sits next to him under the jukebox. This is home turf: the family house Ellie still lives in is just few blocks away. Under grilling, Rob confirms that his daughter was “a very pleasant child” and “no trouble”. But, perhaps sensing that some weird line between the domestic and professional is being breached by his continued presence, he soon make his excuses and leaves with Kevin.
It’s been a long, drawn-out rise for Wolf Alice. They were a buzz band in 2012, in 2013 and 2014. In fact, they’ve been the name on everyone’s lips for so long that, come last year, it felt like they might have blown it. Two EPs – 2013’s ‘Blush’ and 2014’s ‘Creature Songs’ – ratcheted up the expectations, but the lack of a debut album kept them marooned in the paddling pool. The incessant hype machine has already seen plenty of new contenders come and go while we’ve been waiting for Wolf Alice to either shit or get off the pot.
But then, Wolf Alice are not one of those bands that arrived on the scene with a fully formed look, sound and 10-point manifesto. The fact that they’ve never had a plan – only a lot of vim and dedication – has been written into their own folklore. “We’ve spent years wandering around in the dark, looking for the light switch,” is how Joff puts it. When they posted the countrified Mazzy Star lilt of ‘Leaving You’ in October 2012 – source of their initial buzz – there was definitely no 12-track album ready to go behind it. “Everything has been catch-up to some degree,” Joff admits. Working out what Wolf Alice was or could be was as much a mystery to the band members as it was to everybody else. The challenge, then, was to make the group while simultaneously touring it. Which is a bit like jumping out of a plane with a length of silk, a needle and some thread, and trying to fashion a parachute before you hit the ground.
Where they fit in has been another question they’ve had to answer on the fly. They’ve been cast as a retro alt-rockers – the end product of the grunge revival that bloomed three years ago with Yuck, Cheatahs and Splashh. But they don’t see themselves as ’90s revivalists. “We once went to a ’90s music quiz,” says Ellie, “and we scored zero points. So I’m not so sure we’re the ’90s band everyone thinks we are.” Neither are they the frothing Belly and Hole fans that their output often suggests. “There are definitely grunge elements,” Ellie concedes. “But early on, I said that our album was 100 per cent not a grunge record, because I don’t want people who are into grunge music to be disappointed. There’s not one sole genre. I don’t think we kept to purely grunge.”
Their soft-loud seems to come from a different place to that of the Pixies or Nirvana, driven by the sheer taste clashes of the various members. This, after all, is a band who, as Joff points out, “are into both Deftones and Miley Cyrus”. Theo was an art-punk who got a jump-start from seeing the The Horrors. The first album Joel ever bought was ‘Hybrid Theory’ by Linkin Park, and for five years he listened to “nothing but hardcore punk”. Ellie’s first album was ‘Missundaztood’ by Pink. Joff was a finger-picking guitarist who dug Willy Mason.
What unites them is the stuff you wouldn’t expect. Wolf Alice were just too young to be recruited by The Libertines’ raggle-taggle army. Instead, they found their generational moment in the broader range of arty indie that bloomed in The Libs’ wake. Although they were contemporaries, the band cite underrated Brighton psychobillies The Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster as an inspiration, while Patrick Wolf also figures massively. “He was really diverse and weird,” Theo enthuses. “On ‘Wind In The Wires’, percussively, he was doing things Death Grips would be envious of.” Ellie: “I remember seeing him at the Union Chapel [in Islington, London], and that being the first time I’d ever seen a glitter cannon go off.”
With only modest amounts of irony, they’ve taken to dubbing what they do simply as “rocky pop”, and soon the world will be able to see what they mean, when ‘My Love Is Cool’ finally drops at the end of June.
It’s an album that specialises in sugar-coating its darkness, putting butterfly wings on its bullets. The short story by Angela Carter that the band are named after is about a girl raised by wolves. Captured and brought back to the human world, Tarzan-style, she then has to learn about shame, regret and fear of death from seeing everyone around her react to behaviours she once thought normal.
That idea of innocence versus experience seems very apt. There’s a longing to ‘My Love Is Cool’ that comes through in the lyrics, a nostalgia for lost idylls. ‘Bros’, for instance, is a tender evocation of childhood friendship: “You are my best friend/There’s no-one, there’s no-one that knows me like you do”. It’s about Ellie’s old friend Sadie, penned after she recalled all the times people had asked them “if they were brothers” because of their terrible haircuts and un-feminine low voices.
From the soft, Air-like intro of ‘Turn To Dust’ with its invocations of magick and fairytale – “Keep your beady eyes on me to make sure I don’t turn to dust” – to the ‘Dear Prudence’ psychedelic mangle of ‘Your Love’s Whore’, to the gloomy ’80s indie psychedelia of ‘Silk’, there’s an enchantment to what Wolf Alice do that transcends the many genres they skip through. ‘Swallowtail’ explores the folkier end of their spectrum, with Joel singing muzzy lines over becalmed acoustic guitars, while at the other end, ‘Soapy Water’ ratchets up the electronic textures into something resembling Poliça or Garbage.
Grunge certainly still gets a look-in. Most notably, there’s the vicious ‘Fluffy’ and the gaping Hole of ‘Giant Peach’, corkscrewing-in halfway through the album with the ferocity of the Crossrail tunnel-digger. Yet, despite the heavy air of portent streaked through ‘My Love Is Cool’, in the flesh Wolf Alice are very much four jokers in a pack; bants-merchants, with absolutely no airs or graces. They’re part of a generation of bands who, thanks to always-on nature of internet culture, have had to ditch a lot of the hauteur that previously came with being a rock star.
There are Simpsons-referencing song titles – ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ is a nod to a first season episode. In fact, The Simpsons is something they collectively take very seriously. “Everyone knows a Homer and a Bart,” Ellie points out. “We’ve grown up with them; they’re like our second family. I’ve learned half my life morals from The Simpsons.”
Then there’s the endless stream of tongue-in-cheek videos – like ‘Fluffy’, in which they spoof lame animal-obsessed vloggers with acoustic guitars, or the ‘Giant Peach’ promo, which sees all four rocking out with lutes in medieval costumes in the middle of a forest.
Ellie thinks being daft is part of the job. “When a label gives you money to make a video, it feels so surreal anyway, the best thing to do is to have fun with it.”
Joff: “We have to take the piss out of ourselves a little bit.”
Joel: “I have to say, the other day, when I was dressed up like Robin Hood, running around this golf course, I did feel like I was winning at something.”
Joff asserts: “But I think one thing we all have in common is that we all take this band really, really seriously. Even before the people around us were taking it seriously. We have ambition to play bigger stages.” How big? “The biggest you can imagine.”
Does that mean courting the kind of fan who buys their albums in Asda? A groan goes around the table. “I think there’s a level of snobbiness on that side,” says Joel.
Theo: “You can’t choose your fans, can you? And if you do, then you don’t deserve them. I’m fine so long as nobody’s abhorrently racist or sexist. I don’t want to play a Ukip conference.”
Joel: “Someone like Bob Dylan, he said: ‘I’m a performer.’ And that’s how we feel. The ego doesn’t follow the size of the audience.”
They’ve already played The O2, as support to Alt-J, but as it stands, they have both the motive and the means to do it themselves. That’s one of the reasons they’ve taken their sweet time in getting here – to get it right. For all the unplanned nature of their success, Ellie is already measuring the project out in decades, arguing that “it might take us 10 years to get where we want to be”.
A mere six days further into that process of becoming, behind a hidden door built into the brickwork of a wall in Islington, down a twisty flight of stairs, slumped on a burgundy leather sofa, the band are in their management’s offices, recording a video interview for NME. After they’ve all said their piece, Ellie runs through another interview about her favourite songs.
New York anti-folk duo The Moldy Peaches, she says, made her want to be in a band. “‘Nothing Came Out’ – I’ve got demos of me and my friend covering that when we were 14.” But when she gets asked what song reminds her of high school is, she crinkles her nose. “Hmmm,” she says, dismissively. Was school agony? “Well, I was definitely over it in the last two years. Me and my friends liked to wallow. We liked to moan: ‘Why don’t we know any boys?’”
Was she the little grunger in the corner? “At the start, yeah. But then, everyone moved onto dubstep and club music.”
And you didn’t?
“It wasn’t my scene.”
It feels like Ellie still sees herself as a work in progress. She’s a reserved sort: witty, but her gags are all side-of-the-mouth bon mots rather than table-banging anecdotes. Fronting the big rock band she wants Wolf Alice to become can’t be achieved without giving up more of herself than she seems comfortable with. Even as recently as two years ago, at the early shows, her personal performances offered a literal definition of shoegazing. Yet somewhere since then she’s bloomed into a ballgown-wearing, high-kicking mosher. Onstage, at least…
“Yeah, I guess being onstage, you’re allowed to explore. It’s like a mini life. I could see a dress in a shop and think, ‘I’d never wear that,’ but then I think, ‘Oh, that’d be good for onstage.’” Who is that person onstage? “It’s me, but me without any inhibitions.”
Do you feel you care overly what people think of you sometimes?
“I feel like so long as I’m not offending anyone, I don’t, no. But…”
You’ve become more confident, though?
“Maybe I’m still not 100 per cent confident, but I feel like that was partly just from looking at myself on videos and cringing. After a while, I realised… I realised that if I was going to make mistakes, I should at least be myself when making them.”
Her recent reading list is composed almost entirely of non-fiction books about girls in music and the arts: the memoirs of The Slits’ Viv Albertine, Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn, Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ex-girlfriend Alexis Adler. She apparently often takes a female friend on tour, as moral support. But ask her if, straight-up, she feels isolated as a girl in a boys-in-bands world, and she demurs.
“I always say this, but I’m still getting used to ‘being in a band’. That’s all still new to me, so I don’t often consider ‘being a girl in a band’…”
Do you feel like you’ve changed a lot over the past few years?
“…I think quite a bit.” She stalls. “I have tried my hardest to do everything naturally. You have to find out who you are by trying lots of things. But now I just try not to force anything.” She mentions the Kim Gordon book. “One thing that resonated with me was when she said something like: ‘Why do people want to be in rock bands? Is it because they don’t want to grow up?’”
Do you feel that kind of arrested development in yourself? “I think you can sometimes feel not ready for something.”
Isn’t that something you should push past? An immaturity?
She searches for the correct words. “I don’t think it’s that you’re not ready to grow up.” She thinks. “It’s more like… you’re just taking everything in.”
Albums brimming with dark enchantment and that kind of pining nostalgia can often come from that kind of a place. There’s something in Rowsell that is forever drinking it all in, feeling things more intensely than she can always express, and looking back with a wounded wistfulness about the sheer immutable passage of time. Whether she’s ready for growing up or not, she can console herself with knowing that, in 10 years’ time, there will likely be plenty more peaks to be nostalgic about.
In the background, Joff and Joel wander back into the room and start making themselves cups of tea at the kitchenette counter. So where wouldn’t Wolf Alice want to be in 10 years’ time? “Prison…” Joff jumps in, before Ellie can respond, “…or Hull.”All three giggle. But they won’t be laughing quite so hard the next time their tour bus crosses the Humber.