The Big Read – Wolf Alice: “The whole year has been bonkers”

AS THEY CAP OFF A STELLAR YEAR WITH TWO SPECIAL CHRISTMAS SHOWS AT O2 ACADEMY BRIXTON, WOLF ALICE TELL RHIAN DALY ABOUT THE HIGHLIGHTS OF 2018, FROM TOURING WITH QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE TO WINNING THE MERCURY. PICTURES BY JONO WHITE


 

Theo Ellis is stood in the middle of a children’s train set, holding a lighter to a Santa hat. He’s trying to make it go up in flames but, so far, he’s failing; the orange flicker is doing nothing more than softly melting the white bobble at the end. “It’s just turning into candy floss,” the bassist moans to his bandmates, who are all stood to the side, watching his pyro defeat with smirks and grins.

It’s easy to see why Wolf Alice are in mischievous mood. They’ve spent the year riding the high of their supreme second album ‘Visions Of A Life’ – an inventive, eclectic record that has cemented their place as one of the country’s finest bands.

Now, they’re ready to put it to bed with two shows at London’s O2 Academy Brixton right before Christmas, finally take a break so they can recover, and move on to whatever’s next. “It’s a good excuse to have a party,” Theo says of the shows later. And if there’s one thing Wolf Alice are good at (and they’re great at many), it’s throwing the kind of big nights you never want to end.

Wolf Alice, clockwise from top: Joff Oddie, Theo Ellis, Joel Amey, Ellie Rowsell

Christmas time, mistletoe and… lager?

As is mandatory for any shows in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Wolf Alice’s final shows for ‘Visions Of A Life’ have been given a little festive twist. For the most part, it’s incredibly subtle – two Christmas trees stand either side of the stage, unlit until the encore. As the final notes of ‘Giant Peach’ subside, a blizzard of “snow” falls from the ceiling and Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ blares through the PA.

“Snow machines are very different to what I thought they were,” Theo says, sprawled across the couch in the venue’s green room. “I think we all thought they were foam. It’s just fucking white paper really.”

“I wonder if it looks like snow,” frontwoman Ellie Rowsell ponders, too close to the deluge when it falls to get the same view of it as the rest of the venue. One thing she is certain of – it gets everywhere. “I found a piece in my knickers this morning,” she laughs. “It was kind of plastered to my arse.”

The band had previously joked to NME about hiring a Michael Bublé impersonator for the night but there’s an absence of any guests or even Christmas covers. Despite that, there are some treats along the way to get dewy-eyed over – live debuts for ‘VOAL’ tracks ‘After The Zero Hour’ and ‘Sky Musings’, and two old tracks resurrected for the occasion (‘Storms’ from the 2014 EP ‘Creature Songs’ and ‘Fluffy’ b-side ‘White Leather’). The latter in particular has got Ellie feeling nostalgic. “I had a little moment playing it the other day cos I listened to the lyrics almost hearing it as an older me,” she explains. “I felt really sorry for my younger self and I felt a bit sad. Like, ‘Oh god, why was I so pathetic?!’”

By the time you read this, Wolf Alice will officially be on their break and, likely, trying to recover from the final show’s after-party. Their immediate plans after that are low-key and their New Year ones non-existent. “We’ve lost all our friends cos we’ve been away so long,” Ellie jokes.

She and Theo will spend Christmas in London, while drummer Joel Amey will head back to his mum’s house in Surrey and guitarist Joff Oddie will split his time between Birmingham and Cornwall, where he’s hoping things will go a bit smoother than previous years. “Last time I went to Birmingham, we opened the turkey to cook it on Christmas Day and it was rancid,” he sighs. “So I spent Christmas Day driving around trying to find somewhere that sold one. The one place that had a chicken was a halal butchers. So God bless ‘em.”

While hopefully the Christmas Day turkey hunt won’t become a tradition for Joff, Ellie’s family have started a new custom recently – going down the boozer post-present giving. “There’s one pub in Camden that’s got cats in it and dogs that sit on stools,” she says. When Joel suggests pub Christmas dinners are worryingly hit-or-miss, she clarifies the reason for the excursion: “Oh, not for dins! Just for lagers.”

“That is dinner, isn’t it?” Theo chimes in.

Kings and Queens

We might only be a few days away from Christmas but it came early for Wolf Alice this year when they were given the opportunity to support a trinity of massive names – Liam Gallagher, Foo Fighters, and Queens Of The Stone Age. For the latter, they joined Josh Homme and co on the road in America where they made childhood dreams come true and imbibed a lot of “very nice tequila”.

“That was my favourite thing that’s ever happened to us,” Joel says, saying QOTSA as a band that changed his life as a kid. “They actually watched us play – I just presumed they were being polite but to see them being so into what we were doing and so warm was a ‘pinch me’ moment – much more than the Mercury Music Prize and stuff like that.”

QOTSA were an important band for all four members of Wolf Alice, but especially for Theo, who has the two-pronged fork from the cover of ‘Songs For The Deaf’ inked on his arm. While on tour with his heroes, he spoke to Josh about the tattoo, who “said something really cool” that Theo can no longer remember because he was “fucked off my face”, presumably on that aforementioned tequila. One thing he can remember – letting off “a sword-based firework in the presence of Josh Homme,” which means the bassist “could die now.” “It was called Excalibur and it was sick,” he informs us.

Wolf Alice might have a reputation for being able to party but they pale in comparison to veterans like Queens. They first met Josh at the first tour date in Austin, where he greeted them with shots. The band would party inside Wolf Al’s dressing room often, “inside their own party world.” “They can drink more tequila than anyone ever, I reckon,” Theo assesses as the rest of the band marvel at their ability to then go and outplay everyone too.

“They’re superhuman,” Joel notes. Ellie, curled up across the room, has another view: “Or we’re just massive pussies…”

Mercury rising

The QOTSA tour might have been more surreal to Wolf Al than any of the other things they experienced this year, but there was one moment of 2018 that probably came a pretty close second. In September, they were named winners of the Mercury Music Prize over the likes of Noel Gallagher, Lily Allen, and Florence + The Machine. The band, as modest and self-deprecating as ever, thought anyone but them could win.

Have you noticed any impact on the band or anything changing since you won the Mercury?

Theo: “The immediate sensation on social media and the fact you’re on the actual news the next day is quite overwhelming. Obviously, it was so unbelievable for starters cos it was so bonkers and surreal. Then there’s the next day when you’re a bit like, ‘Oh my god’ and we also had to fly to Australia. In terms of effects on our career, it came late to us with this album. We’ll probably notice it more [on the next album]. I had a lot of texts from people I didn’t expect.”
Ellie: “That was the most texts I’ve ever gotten.”
Theo: “Yeah, same. So it’s worth it to get the most texts you’ve ever gotten. I just felt really popular.”

What was the moment when your name was announced like?

Ellie: “When things that are unbelievable happen to you, it’s almost like it doesn’t count cos it doesn’t feel real.”

Theo: “I’d just drunk so much by the time it happened. That annoyed me. I was like, ‘Fuck, I’m not digesting this properly!’ But when something’s so intense emotionally you go into auto-pilot, don’t you? Just chat shit. That’s what I did.”

What was it like having to then go and perform again while you were processing this win?

Theo: “I’ve never seen the footage but Johnny [Wolf Alice tour manager] said it’s pretty bad.”

Ellie: “I’m glad we went to Australia straight away cos I didn’t want to look at all those things. I can’t watch them. I don’t mind watching performances but I don’t like watching non-performances cos it is just you laid bare. It’s really hard.”

Joel: “I watched the bit of us going up the stairs [to collect the award] cos for some reason I was saying hello to Sampha when we won and then I didn’t know what to do so I was like, ‘Oh, thanks Sampha!’ Bothered him for 15 seconds and so then I was a bit behind [the rest of the band].”

Theo: “Then he got really scared of a firework.” [As Joel reached the stage a blast of confetti was set off next to him].

Joel: “It was really close to my bottom!”

Ellie, you couldn’t really speak during the speech. Is there anything you wanted to say that you couldn’t at the time?

Ellie: “If there was, it would have just come out. I find it quite weird to plan something to say but some people aren’t good at arranging their words on the spot. I guess I couldn’t say anything but also slyly didn’t want to. If I feel genuinely proud about something I don’t want to ruin it by stumbling across my words.”

Theo, you recalled one of the first label meetings you had where you were criticised for all your songs sounding different. That’s something you got…
Theo:
“The Mercury for?”

Well, yes, but also something you got criticised a lot for when you were starting out. Does winning the Mercury for an album that is so full of different sounds and ideas and everything that’s happened on ‘VOAL’ feel like vindication for not bending to what people said you should do?
Ellie:
“It’s more like it’s nice to know that not adhering to what other people think is the right way to do things can pay off – or things can go well, to a certain extent, when you trust your gut. That’s what we always say is the big thing we learnt – if it feels wrong, it’s wrong and if people are telling you it’s wrong but it feels right then you’ve only got yourself to blame, which is way easier.”

Theo: “And honesty’s so important. The older I get, I find it so much more important – seeing people being honest in their art and what they’re doing. Not saying we’re saints, cos we’re not.”

Ellie: “No one can say that completely.”

Theo: “I dunno. Fuck that guy.”

You probably haven’t had time to spend the money yet having been away pretty much since the day you won, but you spoke before about wanting your own space in London or getting into the studio. Is that still the plan?

Ellie: “I think what we’ve learnt now with a bit more time is that we don’t need to do anything straight away with that money. It’s best to wait until we have something that we feel will be where it’ll be best put to use. None of us want to rush that. There’s so many times when you’re like, ‘Fuck, I wish I had some money to do this or do that’ so it’ll be nice to have when that moment comes.”

Tomorrow’s chip paper

With awards and national recognition comes some downsides, though. Specifically, becoming tabloid fodder weeks after their victory, when rumours about Ellie’s personal life were splashed across The Sun. In a report, the paper claimed she was secretly engaged to Slaves’ Isaac Holman, with who she was said to have bought a house in Margate.

“It was weird,” she says now of the fabricated story. “But it went away very quickly. It really was five seconds of fame.”

After the report began to spread, fans rushed to Twitter and Instagram to congratulate the singer and guitarist on the news. Ellie, who is usually very private about her life outside of the band, only stepped in to say anything about the situation because of the messages she was getting. “It’s quite annoying to be congratulated for quite a nice thing that hasn’t actually happened,” she explains.

She shut down the reports in a Twitter post that read: “I’m not engaged to anyone, I haven’t bought a house in Margate and my name isn’t Alice.” In another, she posted a caption-less photo of two hands with piercings where engagement rings would traditionally be. “I wanted to find one with onion rings but I couldn’t,” she smiles. “That’s only in The Simpsons.”

Wolf Alice were involved in one engagement this year, though. During their Reading Festival set, the group paused the show to invite two fans, Hannah and Katie, onstage for a touching proposal. “It’d be nice to get an invite to the wedding,” says Theo.

Politics

In the last couple of years, Wolf Alice have become increasingly vocal about their political beliefs. Before last year’s general election, Ellie appeared in a video encouraging people to vote for Labour, while the band have appeared at rallies for the party and performed at a march protesting the Tories alignment with the DUP. Despite the context of the latter, their involvement has always felt quite hopeful, if urgent. Now, with Britain’s impending exit from the EU looming and the whole thing a mess, that optimism has waned.

“I think it’s an impossible position for literally everyone,” says Joff, stirring from the corner of the room where he’s stayed mostly quiet until now. “Labour need to be so careful cos if they come out and go, ‘No, we need a second referendum’, they’re gonna lose all the traditional Labour seats – a lot of their seats are in largely regional areas where a lot of the voters were leavers. So you’re telling those people they were wrong and that’s like a betrayal of them. I don’t think there’s a best case scenario.”

The band might have publicly supported Jeremy Corbyn in the past but they don’t want to be mistaken for fanatical champions of his. “I’m behind the Labour Party,” Joff says, making the distinction between leader and the collective he represents. “I don’t believe in everything Corbyn does. They’ve got a great manifesto. We responded to that. If we focus too much on political leaders we’re gonna get Boris Johnson in.”

The band aren’t just interested in political situations close to home. They had already decided a few years ago to not play in Israel while the conflict between it and Palestine was ongoing but had never spoken about it outside of the group before. Then, scores of people were killed in one day. “It felt like it was becoming so hopeless and so ridiculous,” explains Joff. “People in the media weren’t talking about it – not that we made a huge dent but if 100 people or 50 people looked at the Facebook post and it made them have a look [into the situation] then that was the right thing to do.”

The group have faced some backlash for being vocal about the conflict, but have found a section of people wanting to engage in debate rather than just bash them for not staying in their lane. It’s something they’ve welcomed, as Theo explains: “To say you’re completely rounded and know everything about a subject isn’t right so it’s always interesting to have your mind broadened by interesting countering opinions. That’s a good aspect of social media – maybe you’ll go back and think about it and consider things you hadn’t thought of before.”

Visions of a new album

With ‘VOAL’ officially sent off, Wolf Alice’s attention falls to what’s next. The indie world would already have been eager to see what they came up with after the mind-bending brilliance of their second album, but now, with a Mercury under their belt, it feels like even more people will be keeping a close eye on them. For now, though, there’s nothing to reveal. They’ve yet to start writing and haven’t really thought about where they’d like the next record to go, but they’re sure their travels over the last two years and the people they’ve met along the way will seep in somehow.

“I’m so easily influenced by so many different people,” Ellie says. “We’ve watched so many good bands this year. We played a festival in Paris and watched Confidence Man – the music is so good and they’re having so much fun on stage. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m never gonna write a sad song again. I only want music you can dance to.’” But, she says, that effect isn’t just limited to the Aussie duo. Watching Shame made her want to exclusively write “angry post-punk” while Christine And The Queens awoke a desire to solely focus on “sensitive, funky pop.”

Joel, meanwhile, is looking forward to having some time to dig into the new music he’s been missing out on while on tour, as well as educating himself on classic albums he’s bypassed until now. “I listened to that Bruce Springsteen album ‘Nebraska’ today,” he says. “It’s quite haunting and dark. I get why people talk about it. Echo And The Bunnymen I’ve been getting into as well, and The Verve’s first album.”

It’s unlikely we’ll see Wolf Alice back on the road in the near future. They don’t want to tour without new music so Ellie reckons we’ll have to wait until they’ve at least written some fresh songs before they head out again. For the band, that’s a good thing – at the very least, maybe Ellie can get a pet for Christmas without worrying about being away too much. “I’m not fussy, I’ll take anything,” she says when asked what kind of animal she’s after.

“An axolotl?” Theo asks, reaching for his phone and pulling up a video of one. “It’s a small amphibious creature that looks like it has hair. I showed you it before and you did not like it one bit.”

Pets or no pets, they’ll also have time to finally take proper stock on the past 12 months and all that’s happened. “The whole year has been bonkers,” says Theo. “I’m quite nervous about contemplating it alone in January. There’s a big high and low coming. But it’s not really a low cos you’ve always got Christmas… and the pub.”