There are few things we’ve been anticipating more than the return of Wolf Alice. With their comeback single ‘The Last Man on Earth’ set to arrive imminently, we’ve dug out our 2017 cover story with the band, as they released their outstanding second record ‘Visions of a Life’ – an album that would go on to win the Mercury Prize and assert the four-piece as genuine A-list contenders. What a band.
Words: Ali Shutler. Photography: Sarah Louise Bennett.
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Through the ever-growing excitement of debut album ‘My Love is Cool’, Wolf Alice got bigger and more potent. There were nominations, awards and loads of big numbers as the belief that they are A Very Important Band shifted from buzzy optimism to undeniable truth.
Expectations surpassed in every direction, new album ‘Visions of a Life’ takes all that magic and pushes it widescreen. Songs of friendship, fear, fantasy, fallout and love drip in an earthly reality, making sense of things that shouldn’t but never getting lost in the search for something pure or wasting time looking at their own relevance.
See, Wolf Alice make the sort of music that galvanises relationships, soundtracking nights that’ll last forever and offering a comforting escape when things you thought would, don’t. They’re very much in love with music and two albums in, they’ve become a band we can, and do, rely on.
Like Este, Danielle and Alana or Noel, Liam and, erm, those other guys – they’re the sort of band who you know on a first name basis. A group of friends done good, they still wrestle, will put their hands in pockets for money towards a bottle of milk and find the humour in any situation.
But the world has shifted around them. A lot has changed since the release of that debut. After the wide-eyed search of ‘My Love is Cool’, ‘Visions of a Life’ sees the band taking control, saying no and making a stand. It’s mature without being boring (Wolf Alice don’t do dull), and is serious but never self-important.
A lot of what makes this band connect comes easy – effortless companionship and a giddy, grinning excitement about everything they do – but this new album sees them dig down into difficult. Every decision takes what you think you know about their music, and warps it.
“I want to work hard, it’s fun that way”Ellie Rowsell
“We’re trying really hard,” starts Ellie. “It’s not just mates making music. We are ambitious and hard working. We’re not just like, this is a laugh. There are a lot of sacrifices you have to make doing what we’re doing so if we’re making those sacrifices, we want to see something. I want to work hard, it’s fun that way. You don’t want it to flatline, and it’s not just jokes.”
“It’s not,” confirms Theo. “That’s been noticed this time around. We don’t feel like four goofy friends, even though we obviously are.”
Those sacrifices and struggles light fires across ‘Visions of a Life’. The difficult second album that never was, the band finished touring, went home and realised they already had a record sketched out. They set up camp in a practice space with twenty-four-hour access and began to explore.
“We were able to record and work stuff out, with plenty of space and no time restraints,” Theo explains. “We got into doing that and forgot about everything else.”
The group always had at least eight songs on the go, and by the time it came to heading out to LA to record, took 16 songs with them, “but a lot more fell by the wayside.”
There was no concept going in, just a couple of small ideas about pushing themselves further and entertaining their own tastes. It’s the same spirit that drove their debut, this time around the band had a lot more to explore. Before they took an expression and ran with it; this time out they stay a little longer, asking how things work. “We’d play the songs together and see which ones feel most exciting,” explains Ellie. Chasing that feeling is how ‘Visions’ came to life.
“Before we even started playing around with the songs, we were banding things around like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a punk album or something like that?” starts Joff. “But you know, it can’t be pre-calculated. If you try and force it, the music will be rubbish. You’ve got to let the music inform what you do. You’ve got to surrender to the fact that good songs might not be all punk songs.”
Despite the pressures, the only thing the band set out to do was “please ourselves and surpass our own expectations.” You know they did, because they’ve released the record.
“We’re all really proud of this album, so the nerves went away as soon as we realised we’d made something we all really love,” explains Theo.
“I like it when things come together, and you only realise they did in hindsight,” adds Ellie. “That’s what happened with this one. It sounds to me like ‘My Love is Cool’, but mature. You can hear the different circumstances, and you can hear our progression. It’s a very natural album made through a very natural process.”
“People don’t like safe”Theo Ellis
And naturally, Wolf Alice are a very eclectic band. ‘Visions of A Life’ continues that anything-goes attitude they’ve always treasured. At the start, the stylistic leaps between the likes of ‘Leaving You’, ‘Fluffy’ and ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ saw a group trying to find their own way. The bounding excitement of ‘My Love is Cool’ captured a gang eager to lay out their stall, fulfilling their dreams, while ‘Visions of A Life’ is more deliberate. They’ve found peace in not fitting in because they don’t need to.
“I can see it visually, and it’s very broad. There’s a lot of depth to the songs sonically and in other ways,” offers Ellie. The band didn’t go into the studio to do anything but follow their own gut. It’s why ‘Visions of a Life’ is made up of twelve individual paintings rather than one giant landscape. From the opening serenade of ‘Heavenward’ straight into the cut-throat roar of ‘Yuk Foo’, the record shifts shape, constantly changing direction, style and colour while maintaining a vicious sense of identity. It’s a masterpiece, whichever way you draw it.
The other thing about nature is how violent it is – survival of the fittest and never-ending circles. ‘Visions of a Life’ exists on the cusp. Teetering on the edge of chaos, there’s a very real feeling that it could all come tumbling down at any minute.
“The term ‘difficult second record’ seems to be coined for bands in our space,” starts Joel, as Joff adds: “It’s an achievement to carry on success after your first record, especially being an indie band. How many indie bands have a bit of success and then after the second album, no one cares?” he asks.
That question was “in the back of their minds” as they recorded the album, but just for a moment. It only spurred them on. “We know the geography of being in an indie band. People generally don’t survive very long so we need to work hard to make sure we can survive.”
All that chatter around the gang and the success that came alongside it “makes you work harder,” according to Ellie. “You should kinda ignore what people say about you, but you especially don’t want to give them that opportunity to say, ‘Urgh, why did they get nominated for this?’ or ‘Why does everyone say they’re this?'”
With everyone telling them their future was already a promise of legends, festival headline slots and changing worlds, ‘Visions of a Life’ pushes back and focuses on the now. They hate the word “forever” in ‘Space + Time’, ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ has the fear over “signs of a lifetime” and the whole record tosses and turns, working out their own mind in real time. Stepping up regardless.
Refusing to leave themselves open to attack following the all the praise and promise, the band came to a conclusion: “Shit, I really have to be that good,” states Ellie. “It gave us a bit of fear to work with. We had opportunities to go into the studio before we did, and if we hadn’t had so much good press and that kinda thing, we would have said ‘Ok, we’re probably ready now’ when actually, we needed to be 100% sure we were more than ready. That’s how it changed our process.” But the success, “I don’t think it changed us.”
‘Visions’ is fiercely coherent; reoccurring imagery, heartbreak poetry and a raging battle within. “Did love pass me by, when I had feelings I was scared of?” asks the nightmare claustrophobia of ‘Sky Musing’. “Cos I feel so… when I should feel… I feel so… when I should feel…” it continues, desperate for an explanation but hopelessly lost. Those silences are where Wolf Alice songs exist. Filling in gaps, shining lights and making sense when mere words fall short, they validate feelings and turn confusion into purpose.
“I learn things about myself sometimes from my own songs which I only truly understand with hindsight,” offers Ellie. “Even now on ‘My Love is Cool’ – you look back, and I would never have remembered how I felt at that particular time if I hadn’t written a song about it.”
“This is all just one big fucking scrapbook for us,” offers Theo, while Joff reasons it’s “one big, long therapy session,” with a smile.
The songs take inspiration from the everyday; family, friends, frustration, fears (and even some things that don’t start with ‘f’), but there’s a storyteller twist to them. There’s a distance from initial inspiration to the final anthem as Ellie digs down to play with the bones of her feelings.
Songs on ‘Visions Of A Life’ are inspired by everything from the film Heathers, to death, dementia and the sort of love that defines you. But that’s not what the songs are about. Not really. Instead, it’s the feelings they invoke that are thrown into the spotlight, indulged and explored.
“Most of it is either an exaggerated version of myself or me in another situation that I perhaps haven’t been in. It’s like when movies say ‘based on a true story’,” explains Ellie. Across the record, there’s a feeling of doom and loneliness. “I am set to self-destruct,” ticks ‘Space & Time. “I feel so alone,” whispers the title track and even the romantic flourish of ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ has to ask about love and “what if it’s not meant for me?”
“That’s not a sole representation of me,” starts Ellie. “The things that are helpful to write songs about and also come easiest to me in terms of lyrics are the things I can’t explain in conversation. Those things that aren’t tangible, like feelings, misery and not knowing what’s going to happen. That’s probably why lots of my songs are about that, rather than I’m always feeling sad, lost and doomed.”
“People don’t really expect you, as a female, to talk about sex”Ellie Rowsell
This time out though, everyone shares in the emotional outpouring and the toying with old wounds. The music might speak in unknown tongues, but you can feel the fear and confusion at every turn. The outward relief that they don’t have to face it alone bursts forth.
There’s an unrelenting lust for life that emerges from the unknown. ‘Heavenward’ might look to the sky, hoping for some eternal peace but there are lessons to be taken into the everyday before the snap of ‘Yuk Foo’ rages against wasted time and boredom.
‘After The Zero Hour’ sees a girl refusing to die, drinking the milk of life instead while the title track comes to the heavy conclusion that you can stay as you are because “everybody likes you, everybody cares,” but that’s no life for our narrator. “I’ll get my coat. I’ll be the bitch,” shrugs Ellie. “I heard that journeys end in lovers meeting, but my journey ends when my heart stops beating.”
Even the seemingly inevitable heartbreak of ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ was edited to give it a Hollywood ending. Hope even when you doubt it can exist.
“It’s just a bit too depressing to not have some sort of glimmer of something positive at the end,” reasons Ellie. “We are positive people, and it’s just a reflection of our outlooks. It’s always been a thing, most of our songs are like that and y’know, if I were feeling truly, truly end of the road sad, they wouldn’t have that feeling of optimism.”
‘Visions’ wrestles with itself. Pulled this way and that, it’s turbulent, unpredictable and constantly colliding with what came before. There are light and shade, but every moment of calm, every dash of panic and every end-of-the-world wave is dealt with the same heartfelt importance. Every emotion is allowed to exist in its natural state, bratty anger, fragile adoration and glittering hope because every emotion matters.
Still, Wolf Alice can’t help but exude joy. There’s a playfulness to ‘Visions of a Life’ that comes from the songs dancing in the dark. Always moving, always exciting. “Maybe it was ‘cos we were literally facing each other when we were writing,” offers Joel. “It’s a sad song, but you can still move to it. There was that aspect to it, that pulse.”
“It was important that all four of us could have fun playing the songs,” adds Joff. That danceability is “always the objective,” for Wolf Alice. “Whether or not you hit it, that magic to be able to make people dance is powerful.”
The thing about ‘Visions of a Life’ is how unexpected it all is. At no point do the band retread old ground or echo what’s already been said. “It’s very easy to play to our crowd,” Joel reasons, but this album isn’t about doing things the easy way. There’s no sequel to ‘Bros’ (a track the band had to be persuaded to put on the debut) as the record flits between the new and the newer.
“People get talked down to a lot about what they think other people are going to like. People don’t like safe stuff,” reasons Theo, trusting the audience will follow their lead. “People get so into stuff if it’s genuine,” he adds later.
“It’s not a defiance of expectation,” starts Ellie, “as much as it’s quite easy to settle for what’s comfortable and we made sure we pushed ourselves. If you wanted to try a weird thing, you’d try it. We had more time, so if we wanted to do more layers, we could, and we pushed our instruments a bit further than before. I guess that is against expectations in a certain way because it’s easy to say something is good enough.”
Take the title track. It started life as three demos that weren’t good enough to be songs in their own right. Normally, the band “don’t merge ideas for the sake of it,” Ellie continues. “I think something should be treated as its own thing, but they just really worked together. And because it worked, it was a good sign. Normally, three demos punched together to make an eight-minute song full of riffs should be bad. But it was good.”
And now it exists as its own thing, a microcosm of the record that took its title. A beaming dash through the past, present and ever-blooming future.
“No idea was off limits with this album,” Theo adds. “We wanted to be completely open and try everything. We had more time in the studio; we had double the time it took us to make ‘My Love is Cool’. Ideas, lyrics – anything was game, and we were up for trying it. It was an intention for it not to hold back, to not have any restraint or anything you’d regret, because if you heard something you hadn’t done when you listen to it back, fuck. That would haunt you.”
They had to commit. They had to grab everything in front of them and more.
“I remember Justin [Meldal-Johnsen, who produced ‘Visions of a Life] talking about the new Beck release [he was also Beck’s bassist/musical director for bloody ages],” says Joff, with a glint in his eye. “After a certain number of albums, people have no longer been expecting anything from him. They just expected to be surprised. They expected a difference” – “You just expect quality,” interjects Joel – “and that’s super exciting. You want that to happen, to have no one have any expectations about what it is.”
Wolf Alice aren’t there just yet. When ‘Yuk Foo’ announced the record, it provoked a reaction. ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ further escalated things as the band seemed to be toying with their audience by being contrary on purpose.
“I would believe we were doing that deliberately too,” admits Ellie. “and it would kinda annoy me, but I actually didn’t even think about it.”
“There’s a lot of scope on the album so if we released any two songs, there’d be a difference,” reasons Theo. “And I suppose following them both with ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ was really weird,” he adds with a grin.
Often with Wolf Alice, things don’t need a reason or a bigger purpose than it feels exciting.
‘Yuk Foo’ is “just about frustration,” starts Ellie. “With that song, I feel reluctant to go into depth about it because I feel like I’m always trying to defend it. ‘Oh, it’s not a stupid song’, and then I’m like, ‘Why am I saying that?’ It’s about frustration and for me, I don’t need to tell you what I was thinking about so I’m just not going to,” she explains with a smile.
Remember, it’s not about the spark, it’s about the anthem at the end.
“It’s weird with ‘Yuk Foo’,” continues Joel. “If you write an emotional record, people forget that anger is part of it. They find it really jarring when you bring out an angry song, like it’s immature, but if it was a sad song, that could be taken seriously. I was surprised by how people reacted to it. Maybe you can’t please everyone after all,” he grins.
“But losing your temper is quite immature,” reasons Ellie. “You’re not composing yourself, so it really jars me when people say ‘You’ve not tried very hard with the lyrics’. Well, I didn’t try very hard when I was screaming and having a tantrum either.”
Anger is a weapon, and like everything on ‘Visions’, it fulfils a purpose. There’s a purity in staying true to the emotion, and it shows off yet another side to the band, the story and the people within. It’s also Ellie’s chance to push against people’s expectations of her, the quiet, reserved vocalist.
“I always get told I’m really shy. I guess I’m not so extroverted, but it was my time to say, well, you don’t really know me, and I can do whatever I want in my art. And I will. Also, why are people taking that song so literally? The line ‘I want to fuck all the people I meet’, people have been taking it so literally and telling me ‘That’s really stupid’ and ‘Eww, what are you on about?’
“I feel like people don’t really expect you, as a female, to talk about sex in the same way. Yes, it’s still really shocking, but because it’s art, I can do that. It is quite scary to say some things, but you have that reassurance that its art. It’s not necessarily a reflection of me.”
“And it would be a completely different statement if a bloke said it,” offers Joff. “Kendrick wanted a dick as big as the Eiffel Tower so he could fuck the world for seventy-two hours and people were like, ‘cool man’.”
‘Visions of a Life’ is full of small epiphanies, life-changing realisations and constant reassurance. It challenges, confronts and comforts with each breath, down but never out. Hopeful but never naïve. It’s felt the weight of the world and can now carry its own. Ultimately, it’s an album about grabbing life while you can, because that’s what Wolf Alice want.
Towards the end of touring ‘My Love is Cool’, the band skipped playing a homecoming at a London arena, instead deciding to do a four-night residency at the Kentish Town Forum. Every evening sold out as the band played to just shy of 10,000 people. Draw wasn’t an issue. Instead, the band were worried about getting lost in venues that expansive.
“We were touring one album and to play a venue that size is tricky” admits Theo. “We had two EPs, but those aren’t songs that are necessarily in everyone’s conscious.”
Now the band are heading straight to those big, cavernous venues to introduce ‘Visions of A Life’ to you face to face.
“We have way more to choose from,” reasons Theo. “I think what proved it to me personally was that the last set of intimate UK and US shows, they just felt so fun. 50 minutes was flying by, whereas before 50 minutes was a stretch for us. We’re in better shape to play somewhere like Ally Pally now. We have more music to choose from, and they’re all fire, those tunes,” he laughs, as Joff nods. “That’s going to be the byline then.” They know how this game works by now.
“I looked at my Twitter followers and thought, with great power comes great responsibility”Ellie Rowsell
The band “weren’t thinking about anything other than making the songs good” during the creation of their new album says Joff, “I don’t think the record is aspirational in those terms intently.” But still, “playing a song like ‘Visions of a Life’ at a big venue, the prospect of that is really exciting.”
“And sometimes it’s good to do things that scare you,” starts Ellie, “so you can push yourself. I don’t feel like, ‘Oh my god, what have we done? We’ve made a grave mistake’. I just feel it’s out of my comfort zone, which is sometimes a good thing.”
“To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my comfort zone at any big London show other than maybe the Kentish Town ones, ‘cos they were smaller than the one before it [Brixton Academy],” says Joff. “All the ones before that were a step up, and I always thought ‘Fucking hell, can we do this?'”
“I was about to say the same thing,” adds Joel, as the band look back further. At the time shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Dingwalls seemed uncomfortable as well. Now look at them.
“You’ve got to take that leap at some point to get to that next stage,” reasons Theo. “We were going to have to do it eventually.”
What better time than now?
It’s been said before, it’ll be said again. Wolf Alice are an important band. They mean something to their audience and they stand for what they believe in. Earlier this year, they pulled together Bands 4 Refugees. A series of gigs to raise awareness and cold hard cash for the ongoing refugee crisis, it saw them take to the stage alongside members of Peace, Dream Wife, Superfood, Black Honey, The Magic Gang, Slaves, Years & Years and basically every great band around.
It would have been easier to just focus on themselves, and their new record, “but the whole nature of it is that it’s not going to be easy to do.”
“You find the time for something as important as that, if you really want to do it,” offers Joel. “Which is what we did. And it’s what the people who helped did.”
It’s an ongoing concern. “It would be cool to do it again, I think it’s important to,” starts Theo. They’re going to block out some time for it, but “at the moment, we wouldn’t be able to do anything very good,” because of how busy they are. “It has to be worth people donating money,” he figures.
Elsewhere, during the election, the band loudly backed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and fervently encouraged people to use their voice. “I looked at my Twitter followers and thought, with great power comes great responsibility.” teases Ellie of her decision to get involved. “Just trust your gut and your heart,” she adds, managing a shrug and sincerity.
“Also, it’s black and white these days. It’s good versus evil, choose your side,” adds Theo.
“I think speaking up is important. I don’t know if making music is,” he starts, before Ellie cuts him off: “If someone is enjoying what you’re doing, it’s important. They probably don’t want you to stop, and if you’re enjoying it as well…”
“You do forget it a lot of the time,” says Joff, “but if you think about the big bands you listened to, they genuinely did help you through growing up and that stuff. It does sound a bit naff, but bands do properly help people.”
“They also help you realise you’re not the only person going through something,” continues Theo. “When you feel detached from something, they explain something for you in a song. People have come up to us after our shows and said we’ve helped them through certain things.”
“You shouldn’t take that lightly,” starts Joel, as Joff reasons: “But it’s so easy to forget that.”
The thing is, “you don’t feel like that person,” says Ellie. “When someone is looking at me I always think, ‘Oh no, what have I got on my face?’ rather than, ‘Oh, they probably just recognise me.”
They might be indie champions, role models and serious artists but together, they’re still just four mates. Humble but refusing to let anyone down or give others the satisfaction, theirs is a powerful stance.
After everything they’ve been through, everything they’ve achieved, you wouldn’t blame Wolf Alice for coming back and believing their own hype. That said, Theo knows “at least five people from one pub that would take me down at least seventeen pegs,” if he even mentioned being in one of the best bands in the world, and the four of them are quick to keep each other in check.
Rock star “is a stupid idea” and despite the band taking their music seriously, they’re under no pretence about themselves. “It’s weirder when you go to a festival, and you see any young band who do take it seriously, they do really stick out now,” offers Joel. “Liam Gallagher has come back, and everyone loves him because no one really does that anymore.”
“But he’s also parodying himself,” adds Theo. “He’s pretty self-aware. There’s nothing wrong with being charismatic, interesting and a little bit arrogant at times, but the notion of a rock star, or the old cliché of thinking you’re above other people, it conjures up negative connotations. There’s nothing wrong with being funny and a laugh, but a rock star? I don’t know.”
“No one trying to be a rock star is a rock star,” states Ellie.
“There you go!” exclaims Theo. “Fuck what I said, that answer was good.”
Wolf Alice soundtrack adventures with your friends and your own self-discovery. Their music is fantastical but real. They tell stories, explore harsh truths and find beauty in camaraderie. They inspire this gang mentality, welcoming and tightly knit, they mean a lot to the many, but every connection is deeply personal.
The band don’t know why they inspire such a strong bond, “and maybe we shouldn’t know,” reasons Joel. “I know what bands mean to me, and that’s very important. So if you have that connection, that is important. And that’s not us glorifying ourselves,” he quickly adds. If the record lasts on peoples shelves and “it’s not a disposable record from 2017, if it had longevity, then we’ve done ourselves proud.”
Wolf Alice are already a once-in-a-generation force. They make music to fall in love with because they’re in love with music. Soundtracking evenings that soundtrack years, forever is on their horizon but what matters right now, is now. It’s the flickering lightbulb that hovers above ‘Visions of a Life’. Embrace them while you can.
“You still go back to the records you grew up with and the nostalgia you get from that is crazy, you feel the same way now as you did back then,” concludes Theo. “If someone can feel the same way listening to this album, as I do listening to [Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 album] ‘Songs For The Deaf’, then job done.”
Taken from the now sold out November 2017 edition of Dork. Wolf Alice’s new single ‘The Last Man on Earth’ debuts on Wednesday, 24th February.
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