WOLF ALICE

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

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Alex Lake

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.

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