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Wolf Alice - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Helicopters on Mars

Mar 28, 2016 Wolf Alice Photography by Ellie Rowsell photo by Pal Hansen. Group photo by James Loveday for Under the Radar Bookmark and Share

Ellie Rowsell closes her eyes and winces. Here it comes: the questions about how Wolf Alice sounds so much like a ‘90s band. She’s heard this all beforehow their guitars grunt and drums crash in ways that prove they’ve mastered the loud/soft dynamic, how their sound owes so much to a generation of alt rockers that it couldn’t be anything but intentionaland she seems tired of explaining why all of this seems so strange for someone who is barely old enough to remember life before the millennium. She opens her eyes, bites the end of a pen, and begins. She’ll explain this again.

Though she’s only 23, Rowsell has the perspective, if not the demeanor, of a much older person. Soft-spoken and understated, she has a self-effacing laugh that punctuates moments of gallows humor. With dark, unblinking eyes, she’ll speak about how disorienting it is to be caught in the whirlwind of media and touring, then humbly admit that her life probably isn’t that much more chaotic than those of other early 20-somethings. Though she’s sober to the point of seeming disinterested at times, she’ll occasionally flash a mischievous smile, then look away shyly, like a child caught making faces behind the teacher’s back. It’s easy to see how she can win people over before she ever sings a note.

With a triumphant summer tour and a series of high profile festival spots now in the rearview mirror, she has spent the last two days alone in London, sleeping, listening to long-neglected CDs, and wishing she was back on the road. It has been a chaotic year of firstsfirst full-length release (the Mercury Prize-nominated My Love Is Cool), first U.S. headlining tour, first late-night TV show appearancesbut she doesn’t show any signs that life as the lead singer of one of indie rock’s most-acclaimed new bands is wearing thin. During our hour-long conversation only two topics seem to bother her at all.

First, she bristles at the suggestion that Wolf Alice is an overnight sensation, pointing out that the London quartet has transitioned through five years of lineup tweaks, a couple of EPs, and hundreds of gigs before arriving at this point. Second, she wants to push back against the impression that Wolf Alice are a living amalgamation of ‘90s rock tropes. Despite having used the interviews leading up to the release of My Love Is Cool to dispel any notions that Wolf Alice are, in fact, grunge revivalists, they have failed to escape the comparisons. Regardless of all of the triumphs the band has experienced in the last six months, Rowsell seems to feel as if she won’t be able to declare victory until those last stubborn perceptions die.

“Sometimes people are outright hostile about it, like, ‘Oh yeah, why is everyone digging Wolf Alice when they just sound like the ‘90s? I’ve heard it all before…’” Rowsell says. “Well, I haven’t heard everything that was in the ‘90s. You can’t embody the ‘90s in one band, because Oasis didn’t sound like Nirvana or whatever. I don’t even know what [music] was in the ‘90s. But I think the ‘90s was the time that the media had a big focus on guitar bands and alternative bands, and people like Kurt Cobain were the pop stars, where now someone like him probably wouldn’t be the biggest media-focused person,” she says, trailing off with a sigh. “But I don’t necessarily see it as the music, just because all the ‘90s people they compare us to sound different.”

Rowsell is both partly right and partly wrong. Wolf Alice’s early singles did sound as if they were pulling together the best bits from post-Nirvana alt-rock radio, their crunching choruses, chainsaw guitars, and muffled vocals recalling that brief moment when mainstream rock seemed raw and unpredictable. Intentional or not, it’s difficult to listen to their music without hearing echoes of Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, and Hole.

But Rowsell is also correct in asserting that Wolf Alice are not a typical viral sensation. In an era where bands can blow up the blogosphere and fade away in the span of weeks, their ascent has been far more reminiscent of, well, those ‘90s bands. No less than three years passed from the moment their first single, “Leaving You,” started picking up thousands of listens on Soundcloud to the release of their proper full-length. That was partly by design and partly by necessity, as a combination of aborted recording sessions and a crowded tour schedule conspired to postpone the album again and again. All the delays served a purpose, however: by the time Wolf Alice finally made it into the studio, they were a better, tighter bandone that didn’t need to hide behind peals of guitar distortion and adolescent angst. But if they weren’t a grunge band, what kind of band were they?

“We did think about that kind of thing,” Rowsell admits. “Like, ‘Shit. We don’t have this one direction in which we seem to be going. Every time we go in to make new music, it wanders off into something else. People are calling us a grunge band, and it is going to be really embarrassing when we put out “Soapy Water.”’ When it came to putting out the albummaybe because we had gotten to the end of our tetherwe were like, ‘Fuck it. Who cares?’”

Of course, no one involved with the recording of My Love Is Cool suffered from that kind of indifference; if anything, the opposite was true. They were acutely aware of being a band that had one chance to justify three years of hype, just as they knew the list of bands that had failed to figure out how to translate their early singles into a full album. Make too many angsty guitar songs, and they’d cement those previous perceptions. Drift too far away from that sound and their listeners would accuse them of abandoning what made them special in the first place.

“There was never a point where we were like, ‘Oh, fuck. Too many fucking Nirvana comparisons! Quicklet’s write “Turn to Dust,’” says guitarist Joff Oddie, mentioning the album’s witchy psych-folk opener. “Because it wasn’t a case where we were a band that had their sound, and you plug in and play through 11 or 12 songs and that’s it. But the thing that unites it is that it is Wolf Alice. It is the four of us playing our instruments, the same people writing the songs, recording it in the same place in the same period of time. I think that will unite it. It is eclectic, but it’s not ridiculously eclectic. It’s not hip-hop, jazz, then a chamber pieceit’s still all guitar music, just our favorite bits from it.”

And yet Wolf Alice isn’t just another guitar band. To listen to My Love Is Cool is to hear a band searching for who they are, then deciding that not knowing is perhaps their definitive quality. Caught halfway between Nirvana and The Cardigans, they are first and foremost tunesmiths. There are shimmery shards of ethereal guitar pop (“Your Loves Whore,” “Bros.”) nudging up beside hypnotic balladry (“Silk”) and tumbling electronic drones (“Soapy Water”). There are also thundering power chord anthems (“Moaning Lisa Smile”) and voice-shredding screamers (“You’re a Germ”) that would have fit as Sub Pop singles in 1993. Taken together, it doesn’t add up to an easy or obvious tagline, which makes it all the more likely that journalists will fall back on familiar reference points, even when they don’t fit perfectly. If Wolf Alice suffers from a kind of musical identity crisis, it’s entirely consistent with Rowsell’s trajectory as an artist.

Out Of The Hole

Given the decidedly slapstick nature of the videos Wolf Alice has released for their singlesone depicts them being murdered, one by one, by horror movie tropes; one finds them competing in a dance competition, with the guys dressed in dragit’s striking how unwaveringly focused the band is onstage. Watch any of their live performances, and you’ll find Rowsell front and center, hunched over her guitar and glaring into the middle distance. As someone who has described herself as suffering from fairly severe stage fright, such a battle posture makes sense. She’s not quite so fierce in conversation, but only one topic truly gets her to relax: her childhood.

This is appropriate, since so many of the songs on My Love Is Cool reference adolescence and the trials of youth, and it’s obvious that her middle class, north London childhood looms large in her creative vocabulary. Though she struggles to untangle the roots of her creative development, Rowsell remembers the first moment she wanted to be a musician. At the age of seven, she witnessed a schoolmate performing an original song on piano, with a group of parentsincluding Rowsell’slavishing praise on the child.

“She was singing it in a musical theater kid kind of way, and all of the parents were like, ‘Amazing! Well done! I can’t believe you wrote that!’ And I was like, ‘Oh…’” she recalls, her mouth falling open as she reenacts the moment. “Maybe it was my left-out feeling, like, ‘I want to impress adults! I want to try to write a song.’ But I don’t think I did. In secondary school in music class when they tell you to go away as a group to write a song about a themelike ‘Go write this song about the sky’ or somethingI enjoyed that. But I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I want to be a music person.’ I was just like, ‘I like this, and this comes quite easily to me,’ compared to sitting in a math class and nearly wetting myself when I didn’t know my four times table when I was…” She pauses to laugh: “...About 15.”

She didn’t see writing songs as a serious endeavor until her teenage years, though “serious” might not be the correct word for her songwriting. As she and two friends had taken a liking to New York City anti-folk duo The Moldy Peaches, the trio began writing songs that were similarly tongue-in-cheek, just two-chord ditties about their friends and animals. For an insecure teenager, it felt safer to hide her feelings inside what was essentially a joke.

“But one of the girls said ‘I’ve become too serious for this,’” Rowsell recalls. “And I was like, ‘Fuck! Maybe I should become too serious for this, too.’ But I didn’t really feel like that. I was so disappointed and upset. I just didn’t know the right people, so I think I did get to the point where I was like, ‘I’ll just do it on my own. I’ll be a solo artist.’ But I don’t think I ever really wanted to, and I don’t think I had the confidence, either.”

Though she was such a poor guitarist that she couldn’t sing and play at the same time, she soon discovered that she could make up for her lack of technical skills by layering her parts with GarageBand. She had no interest in recording covers of other people’s songs, but she also lacked the confidence to share her songs with anyone but her most trusted friends. Soon, she quietly posted her tracks online, waiting for the moment that someone would care.

“I think that moment came when…” She pauses as she scans her memory. “It didn’t ever come,” she concludes. “I had to stop waiting around for that moment and go do something to make it happen myself. I had to gain the confidence to stop looking for plan B, like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t go and train to be a teacher.’ Or ‘Maybe I should go to university and study this or that, and find some closed course so I can learn music production.’ But that’s not what I wanted to do, and I had to give myself a chance.”

By the time she graduated high school, she had played the scenario out in her head many times. She was terrified by the idea of performing in public, especially as a solo artist. But how could she approach someone to ask them to accompany her if she wasn’t even comfortable sharing her music with her classmates and coworkers? She needed someone she didn’t even know, someone whose rejection wouldn’t sting. She needed a stranger, and she went to online musician forums to search for one.

“And there was this one guy who seemed really good and looked really cool,” she says of Oddie. “And lots of people on there make the most dire music and weird stuff, like playing ukuleles in a bathtubthat kind of shit. But all the bands he liked were the same ones as me. I really wanted to start playing more, but I was really embarrassed by how bad I was at the guitar. So my dad was like, ‘Just email him and see what he says. Just ask him to do you a favor.’ So I did. He had just moved to London to go to university. I had just finished school and was working and being bored. So we just met up. He was a really good guitar player, and I was a really bad one, so it was perfect.”

“She sent over her demos before we met up at first, and I went ‘Fuck. These are good,’” Oddie recalls. “So we cemented the ground rules very early on, which was that this wasn’t something to be embarrassed about. I think it can be pretty touchy if you haven’t had people that understand how music works, that understand that a demo is a demo and that it’s not silly to sit down and sing and play guitar. A lot of my friends growing up, you’d never do that. I was told I was an idiot, so it was nice to meet someone who was like, ‘I quite like doing this. We’re not weirdos.’”

With only two members, they began making music as what Rowsell describes as a “cute, twee-folk band,” playing sparsely attended shows in dive bars and dreaming of the day when they could plug in and make an unholy racket. Their early rhythm sectionRowsell’s childhood pal Sadie Cleary on bass and Oddie’s friend George Barlett on drumsjoined and then quit a few months later to focus on their studies. Replacement drummer Joel Ameysomeone who had been kicking around the local music scene in various bands since he was 13 years oldinfused the band with a confidence and swagger it had lacked. With the addition of bassist Theo Ellis, a bigger-than-life personality who as a teen had traveled in many of the same social circles as Rowsell, the band’s lineup was complete.

But Wolf Alice still lacked anything resembling an audience. Their previous tracks“stupid acoustic things” in Oddie’s wordshad disappeared into the Internet ether, so the new Wolf Alice went into the studio in 2012 and began working on their first proper single, a harmony-drenched piece of dream pop titled “Leaving You” that sounded quite unlike anything they had done before.

Sure enough, “Leaving You” burned up the Internet almost immediately, its thudding drums and squealing slide guitar kicking up a clatter not unlike what is found on early Zeppelin records. “It got something like a thousand plays in a day, and we went ‘Holy fuck! What is going on here?’” Oddie says, still sounding as surprised as he did then. “Looking back now, that wasn’t a vast amount, but going from zero plays to a thousand was like, ‘Oh, fuck. People are interested.’”

That responseexcitement colored by an attendant discomfort with expectationsis a constant in the Wolf Alice story. In the aftermath of their first breakthrough, they moved forward as any band would, playing as many shows as they could, going up the ladder of all of the trendy clubs and festivals that mark a band’s ascent. Two EPs2013’s Blush and 2014’s Creature Songsfollowed, and the hype intensified. But without an album available, how does a band measure success? Answering that question would prove more difficult than any of them anticipated.

Scrap The Blues If The Blues Don’t Work

Say what you will about the democratizing benefits of bands needing nothing more than initiative and blog buzz to kick-start their careers, but when Wolf Alice finally got down to the business of recording their full-length debut, they were a band in flux. In fact, they were in the unenviable position of having to justify the audience they’d already had for two years. The recording sessions for My Love Is Cool were fraught with uncertainty from the start.

Having never shared the studio with anyone from outside of the band before, they found recording with producer Mike Crossey difficult, if only because it added an unfamiliar voice to their creative process. They fretted over which songs would be the singles, they puzzled over how to best re-record songs that they had already released and played on tour, and they scrambled to get it all done in the scant six weeks of studio time they had booked. By the end, all four members liked the finished product, but were second-guessing themselves. Was the album too polished, too safe, too predictable for a release that many people thought should have been out at least a year earlier?

“There was one side of methe pessimistic, nervous sidethat was like ‘Oh, shit. People are going to hate it. People might think it’s boring. They might think it’s overproduced,’” Rowsell says. “I thought people would be like, ‘You took too long. This should have been the most incredible album in the whole world.’ I think we got there in the nick of time.”

They needn’t worry. Upon its release, My Love Is Cool was greeted with breathlessly positive reviews and landed at number two on the U.K. albums chart. As to be expected, critics struggled to place the band’s sound in a larger context, and most didn’t even try, praising their stylistic dexterity and delicate balance of beauty and noise.

Now caught in the gears of a machine they created, they are eager to jump back into the songwriting and recording process, but admit that they’ve got at least another year of touring before that will be possible. Murmurs of new songs are there, Rowsell says, and she sees herself moving beyond the sorts of ideas and sounds that were interesting to her when this journey began five years ago. Wolf Alice is in a period of transition.

“I’d like to think that we’ll just keep improving and changing,” Oddie says. “But I’m very tentative about saying that we’re going to try in go in this or that direction. I think if you have a preconceived notion of what you want to do in your head, the outcome can be a bit contrived. I just want to carry on doing what we’re doing. But who knows, man?” he says, before straining for a more grandiose destination point.

“We’ll be headlining stadiums and living in mansions,” he says with a self-mocking tone. “We’ll have helicopters on Mars.”

While Oddie offers his commentary as a joke, his attitude reveals yet another way in which Wolf Alice is a different beast than the generation of ‘90s acts to which they are compared. Where those bands were still navigating through the discussion of what it meant to be popular when chart success called into question a band’s legitimacy, Wolf Alice have made no secret of their desire to be rock stars in the truest sense of the word. Though Rowsell doesn’t see an album of house music, nor any experiments with reggae or jazz, in their future, everything else appears to be on the table. They’ve been an awkward acoustic duo, mislabeled grunge revivalists, and, now, chart-topping rock stars. Where will their helicopters on Mars touch down next?

“Sometimes you want to be other things,” Rowsell concludes. “I’ll listen to Deftones or something, and I’ll be like, ‘Fuck! All I want to do is make this heavy sludge music. Why did I make “Silk”’? Then I’ll listen to Lana Del Rey, and I’ll be like, ‘Shit! No. I actually want to make sad pop music.’ Then I’m annoyed about whatever I’ve just done previously, because I think one looks more fun than the other. I guess in time I’ll figure that out,” she says, her eyes smiling at last. “It’s freeing in a way, because you can kind of be all of them at one time.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s Best of 2015 print issue, which is still on newsstands now. This is its debut online.]



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