Over two albums and four years, London’s Wolf Alice have grown into an act with global potential, the best of their generation. Laura Barton joins them on the road in Bangalore, Manchester and LA to witness a band balanced thrillingly on the very precipic
COVER STORY: Join us on a passage to India, via Manchester and LA, as we witness a band poised on the verge of greatness. And then head to page 72 for a chance to buy a special 7- inch single and a bespoke issue of Q magazine. Nice!
The afternoon heat is rising in Bangalore, a haze of car horns and dust. A short walk away from the clamour of the main street, past the crates of flurrying chickens, and the stalls piled high with green coconuts, and the women ferociously sweeping their front steps, and the chai sellers and the stray dogs and the motorcycles that come beep-beeping and zig-zagging through the crowds – Wolf Alice are in the midst of a photo shoot. They are an incongruous sight, as perhaps any group of four young Westerners might be on the backstreets of a busy Indian city. But there is something more. There, in the surety of their gait, the cut of their clothing, the easy way they find their angles for the camera, that gives them the determined and distinctive air of a rock band. The first time I met Wolf Alice was in the spring of 2014, just a year after the band had finalised their line-up and released their first single. That lunchtime they piled into a greasy spoon on the Holloway Road in North London for a New To Q interview: guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey sat crammed around a small table, eager and exuberant; singer Ellie Rowsell arrived a little late, and for a moment stood by the door, looking wary. What was striking about them then was the collision of their sartorial styles, as if they were not so much a cohesive unit but four musicians thrown together by strange circumstance. In the four years since, Wolf Alice have become not only stylistically unified but also musically formidable, and now stand as that quite thrilling prospect: a young British band with the potential to achieve global success. Two albums deep, they have enjoyed Grammy and Brit nominations, sold out London’s Brixton Academy and Alexandra Palace, and been the subject of a film by Michael Winterbottom. With the summer festival season now lying open before them, including a headline slot on the Radio 1 stage at Reading/Leeds, it seems perfectly reasonable to wonder just how big this band might get. “I think it could very easily still be taken away from us,” says Oddie, smoking a cigarette by the hotel’s rooftop pool the following afternoon. “Very easily.” Still, for a band that cut its teeth sleeping on floors as it toured the UK, he seems quite comfortable in the environs of a swish hotel. “You grow up and you get a bit softer,” he concedes. “You start liking the plush things. If we were on tour like Fugazi, four people sharing a hotel room after 20 years, I think I’d personally go absolutely bonkers.” Wolf Alice are here in India this weekend to play the Backdoors festival in aid of Amnesty International, making the most of a stop on the way home from the juggernauting multi-city Laneway festival in Australia. The previous evening they attended a festival showcase at a bar in the city populated by its young, rich and beautiful. Rowsell, Oddie and Ellis milled awkwardly between the rooms before Amey arrived, sharply dressed, and stood drinking mugs of tea and watching the cricket on the big screen behind the bar.
In the beginning Wolf Alice were a duo, made up of Oddie, who had grown up in rural Cornwall and trained as a primary school teacher, and North Londoner Rowsell. Rowsell had played music from a young age, initially in a traditional Irish troupe named Meitheal Cheoil, as well as the Islington Community Choir. There was a moment she recalls “watching another girl sing a song at a ceilidh called Do You Love An Apple?” that proved particularly resonant. “I suppose if a song that inspires you is a technically difficult composition sung by a group of older men, for example, then you might feel too intimidated to try your hand at such a thing yourself,” she reasons. “If it’s a simple song sung by a 13- year-old girl accompanied by nothing at all, then you might feel differently.” She met Oddie via an internet forum in 2010, when she was keen to play live but too nervous to do so alone. Those early open-mic shows were more acoustic-led, and by their own admission more twee. The addition of Amey and Ellis, both already fixtures on the London scene at a time when, Oddie recalls, “I didn’t even know what the scene was”, enhanced both their sound and their image. If they look back now, over all the tours playing to “one person in Coventry”, the rehearsal spaces booked by the hour, the gathering attention, record sales, award nominations, and the long stretch recording in Los Angeles, their progress seems hardearned but nonetheless striking. “I think Ellie’s definitely growing in confidence as a songwriter,” Oddie says. “And that sounds like a stupid, throwaway obvious thing to say, but I think she’s maybe getting to a point where she understands how good she is. We’ve grown a hell of a lot in confidence playing live as well. If you’d seen us in the early days, me and Ellie, and Ellie looking at the ground… and now she’s fucking brutal.” “It is wild, actually,” agrees Amey, joining us by the pool. “I have this really good mental snapshot of Ellie in Brisbane, being on the front row with fucking loads of people clambering up to her, and she’s there with her guitar in a classic fucking pose and I thought, ‘Shit, she never would’ve done that before!’ She’s a very powerful person.” Rowsell’s power is a delicate balance of restraint and release, and is central to the force of Wolf Alice. Onstage this balance is amplified, a measure of fragility and unleashed ferocity. In person she looks something like a fine line drawing, and has the type of face that the light seems constantly to shift across: scowl giving way to sudden lustre and back again. The previous evening she went striding through the market in a long floral dress, just translucent enough to suggest the demure underwear beneath. She wore black Doc Martens, and walked with an out-turned step, seemingly oblivious – or perhaps grown accustomed – to the eyes that followed her. It is strange, Oddie says, to find their band is always “prefixed as a ‘female-fronted’ rock band.” He smiles. “There aren’t many bands
“There aren’t many groups prefixed ‘male-fronted rock band’, are there?” Joff Oddie
prefixed ‘male-fronted rock band’, are there?” Amey, too, has noticed the fascination a female singer can draw: “From day one I was always wary of dudes who would get really close to Ellie at the front of our pub gigs. And I’d see them again in London at other female-fronted bands’ gigs. And you realise when you go to a festival that there’s actually a culture for it, guys who like girls in bands.” But it was the response to the release of last year’s single Yuk Foo that startled them most. A visceral, expletive-ridden song of boredom and rage and lust, it expressed a desire to “fuck all the people I meet” and was perhaps a touch abrasive for those fans who regarded Rowsell as a delicate, melancholy creature. “I think there was a lot of shock because a lot of people saw me as being very shy and very reserved and very innocent,” she explains patiently. “And that whole idea was ruined for them. I get it, but I don’t. “Music gives me the freedom to express the many people I no longer am, never was or never will be,” she continues. “I am a little shy – though not as much as everyone makes me out to be – and this would be restricting for me if I didn’t have music as an outlet, where I can rage, perform and talk about all the things I don’t know how to say in real life. I feel liberated when I’m writing and when I’m performing.” “That fucking annoyed the shit out of me,” says Amey. “It starts with education because a lot of men – and it is men – can’t cope with difference. It bothered me that people maybe thought she wasn’t being intelligent in what she was saying. I find that insulting on every single level. The lyrics, they’re actually my favourite lyrics on the album.” Oddie agrees. “I also think a lot of female artists who’ve used lyrics like [ those in Yuk Foo] in the past have, to a certain extent, had to become masculinised to be able to say them,” he says. “There’s something very powerful about someone feminine saying, ‘I want to fuck all the people I meet.’” Oddie is the more sober member of the band. He sits down for our interview still carrying a philosophy textbook – while still on tour he has embarked upon a course with a view to one day doing a second degree in philosophy, politics and economics. “It is a little bit difficult, living and working in your job and your art and your hobby altogether,” he explains. “I remember watching a documentary on Philip Larkin and he said that he could only do poetry for a couple of hours a day, which was why he worked in Hull University library while he was Poet Laureate. And I thought that was really interesting. I do need a little bit of space from it all just to have another focus. “I get terrified by the idea of arrested development, and it could happen in these situations if you’re not careful,” he continues. “Economics is interesting. I think a lot of people on the Left, a lot of people in my circle of family and friends, have a lot of views on economics and policy but don’t actually know that much about it. But it has so much to do with inequality that I thought it would be interesting to get a proper grasp of the theories behind it.” Wolf Alice are notably a politically engaged band. They supported Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general election (Corbyn returned the favour by encouraging his Twitter followers to buy their album Visions Of A Life) and collaborated with Help Refugees UK to stage Bands 4 Refugees in late 2016. In Bangalore they visit the Amnesty offices to hear about the charity’s work in the region, and the day after their return they are due to head to Manchester for a War Child show. “I come from a very namby-pamby Lefty family so all of these things were talked about a lot when I was a kid,” Oddie says. “But I think we’re really lucky that all four of us share a similar political attitude. It would be a different conversation if Joel were a Tory or something.” They are aware, however, that financial success often brings a change in values. “It’s always so disappointing when you see these people who’ve made so much money being creative and on the reliance of other people supporting them,” says Amey, leaning back in his seat. “Stadium rock bands who rely on 80,000 people saving up their money to come and see them and buy their CD, but they don’t give anything back. But I think you’re dodging being a proper human being if you’re choosing to invest in strange schemes across the globe, rather than pay back into a healthcare system.” “It’s hard, though,” says Oddie, “because you put so much trust in the people that you work with and that you employ to look after some of your affairs. Being in a band is a strange thing where you’re the owner of the business, but the main focus isn’t necessarily making
money. So there’s a strange conflict there. And I think people can fall foul of not keeping an eye on their affairs as they should.” Aside from pop stars with off-shore bank accounts, they find much to be concerned about. “I do feel upset and angry about the way the older generation has left the world for younger generations,” says Ellis. “But I think it’s exciting that other people feel angry about it and there’s a concerted effort by the younger generation who say, ‘We don’t have stuff because you fucked it up.’” And while Rowsell points out that their lyrics are not overtly political, there is something in their sound and their stance that speaks of disenchanted times. “I think that we’ve put ourselves out there a bit,” she says. “I honestly believe that if you feel something you should do something and it almost doesn’t matter how much you do if someone sees you doing it, and it inspires them.”
In Wolf Alice’s dressing room at the Backdoors festival there is a rising air of giddiness – much pre-show pacing across the floor, beers, outfit changes and clambering over one another like puppies. A stick of incense sits in a Coke can on the floor. “Ohhhh,” groans Ellis, who has resumed pacing, eager to take to the stage. “Hurry up! I hate this!” He then opens another beer and starts singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight… Ellis is the ringmaster here. Tall and skin-headed in high-waisted trousers, at times he has the air of a physical comedian and there is an inherent goodwill to his demeanour. “I always find it funny that in Theo’s Twitter byline it says ‘morale officer’” Rowsell tells me. “You couldn’t put it better. Obviously he’s a really good bass player too, but he does create a constant good atmosphere.” “Sorry, Q magazine,” announces Amey, “I’m going to take my trousers off.” He takes a pair of cropped white jeans out of a small green rucksack and puts them on, then stands, shoeless in white socks, drumming on the trestle table with white drumsticks. A few moments later, Jai, the band’s Indian fixer, walks in. “What’s the matter, Jai?” asks Amey. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Ellis smiles. “He’s seen you. The ghost of Johnny Borrell!” Amey laughs. “I’m the ghost of 2007! I’m the ghost with the golden touch!” he sings. Amey and Ellis often seem to act like each other’s sidekick. During the show tonight, played to a crowd of perhaps a thousand enthusiastic young people assembled on a sports field, there was a constant thread between them. It’s a stunning show – at times poised, then furious, then charged with a stadium-worthy enormity. Later I will notice that most of my notes are about Rowsell – how she sits on the edge of the stage for Don’t Delete The Kisses, how as she plays her guitar seems as angular as she is, as if it has joined her long, pale limbs. At the aftershow, back up by the hotel pool, Amey and Ellis seem to form the centre of the storm. Amey, Oddie says, is “intolerably musical. He can sing and play drums, every instrument, he knew about every band.” Amey himself is more self-deprecating. He was, he says, “a fairly stereotypical fat, angry teenager listening to fat, angry teenager music” and growing up in Surrey until he discovered The Horrors, and London, and a world of music beyond. He is lean now, an immaculately presented rock star in tight vest and flowing hair, and the anger has dissipated to leave something kinder and more open. “But I still don’t have any real personal interests,” he says. “Not to sound boring, but everything follows after music.” And so it proves. With the next day off, the band are dedicated to the night ahead, and the party is gathering pace – beer, a barbecue, Anderson .Paak’s gang on the decks, somewhere over the crowd and the canapés Danny Goffey deep in conversation. Across the table, I see Rowsell’s face has taken on a new and mischievous gleam.
“Music gives me the freedom to express the many people I no longer am, never was or never will be.” Ellie Rowsell
Acouple of days later the band are in Manchester, ready to play their live-streamed War Child show at Gorilla. With home and a three-week break in sight, they are restless today. When they landed at Heathrow the previous night it was grey and rainy, though not unpleasant. This is, after all, the band that once found themselves so homesick on a tour of America that they consoled themselves by watching John Smith’s bitter adverts. Ellis talks of the “tunnel vision” he develops at the end of tour and is desperate to get home; of wanting to get a dog, wondering whether he’ll ever buy a house, of his girlfriend in London and of how “it’s horrible, making someone sit and wait for you.” Tomorrow they will head straight from Manchester to the Brit Awards, where they are nominated for Best British Group, up against Gorillaz, London Grammar, Royal Blood and The xx. “We don’t expect to win,” says Rowsell, correctly (they don’t). “But when I look at the line-up I do feel proud of ourselves because we’re quite different.” Awards ceremonies are never quite what you imagine, she ponders. “You know, no one will invite us to their afterparty,” she says. “They’re ‘trying’ to get us tickets and you’re not allowed to bring a guest… that kind of thing is strange. Last time there was a red carpet into the afterparty, and they said to us, ‘Sorry, can you go round the back?’ because there were some models or some celebrities arriving. Somehow we always end up at the Hawley Arms.” You can’t help but feel that those days must be changing for Wolf Alice – that they are now a mature, evolved British group, capable of writing an album that warrants these accolades. “I don’t think the new songs are better, but I hear the maturity,” Rowsell says. “There’s been a lot of things I’ve always done but I stifled before…” She chooses as an analogy her first day at school: “We didn’t have a uniform so I thought, ‘What I should wear?’ I went to futuristic fashion outlet] Cyberdog in Camden and bought some pedal pushers with luminous green stripes down them and a T-shirt with an alien on. I went to school and everyone laughed at me and I realised, ‘OK, I understand, I can’t wear
“A lot of female artists who’ve used lyrics like [thosein] Yuk Foo have had to become masculinised. It’s powerful when someone feminine says, ‘I want to fuck all the people I meet.’” Joff Oddie
that.’ But then later I thought I’d have been so cool if I’d just worn what I wanted to wear. It’s the same with making music. I feel this album is a return – slightly and slowly – to what I was naturally.”
By late March Wolf Alice have reached LA. At the Mayan theatre downtown the teenage girls have set up camp outside, while the band are in the belly of the building, contemplating the lunchtime offerings of the rider. They talk of how they failed to win a Brit Award, and the speech they wrote just in case they did win, but that then got lost somewhere at an afterparty and how they have been living in fear ever since of someone finding it. They talk of the time off that went too swiftly, of writing and recording new songs, and of the support tour with Queens Of The Stone Age, which will begin imminently and has left Ellis with the conundrum of how to cover the QOTSA tattoo on his arm, lest he look like a fawning fanboy. The Mayan show is something of a homecoming. It was after all in LA that they recorded Visions Of A Life, and they will be reunited with the friends they met while living out in Eagle Rock. Their success in the US began early (single Moaning Lisa Smile went Top 10 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart) and has been gathering since. “I think we translate more easily in America than some British bands have done,” Amey says. “We’re not as colloquial as Arctic Monkeys…” But he feels frustrated by tours in America. “Live music’s a different entity over there],” he explains. “It’s great, but a lot of venues are only 21+ and I feel like a lot of kids only get to experience a band when they’re playing a massive venue that can accommodate their age group.” His own experience was quite different, he says. “I remember being 15 and watching The Horrors at a tiny venue thinking, ‘This is going to change everything I’m going to do now.’ Not just because of the band but because of the atmosphere and the way people looked. It was a mind-blowing experience. It’s such a shame if people have to wait till they’re older, because it’s such an important part of your life, and you’re a different person by the time you’re 18 or 21.” When they take to the stage tonight there are enough young faces, upturned and rapturous, to remind you that mind-blowing experiences can happen at any age. It’s during the unabashedly romantic Don’t Delete The Kisses that a fan hands Rowsell a bouquet of red roses, and I think back on our conversations about what it is for a woman to lead a rock band. In some lights perhaps it might seem creepy, or strange, or fetishistic, but tonight it seems something more reverent: a tribute, an offering, to rock’s next great frontwoman.
Flash back: Wolf Alice’s first appearance in Q, July 2014.
Wolf Alice hit their purple patch, Backdoors festival, Bangalore, 17 February, 2018. “It’s the ghost of Johnny Borrell!” Joel Amey is a vision in white, as Ellis and Rowsell play some pre-gig ping-pong at the Backdoors festival.
Flower power: Rowsell with her bouquet, Mayan theatre.