With the famed ‘difficult second album’ both behind them, and proving a triumph in itself, Wolf Alice are returning with a new opus right at the time we need them most. Head away for a ‘Blue Weekend’ with one of the very best bands on the planet.
Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Jono White.
Wolf Alice are one of the most beloved bands in the country. A couple of impressive early EPs saw them flirt with different genres and establish themselves as a ferocious live force, which meant 2015 debut album ‘My Love Is Cool’ had a lot of hype to live up to. From the anthemic indie of ‘Bros’, through the guitar-wrangling snarl of ‘Giant Peach’ to the aching shoegaze beauty of ‘Swallowtail’, the four-piece – vocalist Ellie Rowsell, guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey – smashed every expectation laid at their door. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize and saw them sell out three back-to-back shows at London’s Kentish Town Forum. The follow-up, 2017’s ‘Visions Of A Life’, changed things up again as the band got bolder, the venues got bigger, and this time around they deservedly won that Mercury Prize.
After an 18-month break from playing live and four years on from their last studio release, the band are back with new album, ‘Blue Weekend’. It’s a visual record, with every track also soundtracking a video that’ll form part of a bigger narrative. On the record itself, “some people will find narratives, some people won’t. There are little things you could find, but it won’t be detrimental if you don’t,” explains Ellie.
First single ‘The Last Man On Earth’ is a fiery slow-burner that sees them indulge in soaring cinema. “It was a nice step in a new direction for us,” says Theo. “We have a pattern of surprising people with the first thing back.” So far, it’s always been a success. “Fingers crossed we don’t fuck it on the fourth album, where we foray into a genre we shouldn’t have done.”
Elsewhere, second single ‘Smile’ blends the call of the mosh pit with a fierce lyrical rage. “I am what I am, and I’m good at it,” smirks Ellie. “If you don’t like me, then it isn’t fucking relevant.” Across the record, it feels like Wolf Alice are done trying to live up to the expectations of others. They’ve never sounded better, and demand clearly hasn’t wavered. A day after their 2022 UK headline tour went on sale, most dates were sold out despite the additional nights and venue upgrades.
When asked how they managed to become one of the few guitar bands to go from the Old Blue Last to sub-headlining Latitude, closing the BBC Radio 1 stage at Reading & Leeds, and selling out Alexandra Palace without ever looking out of their depth, they have a variety of explanations.
“A mixture of luck and decisions,” says Ellie.
“The songs have made a great impact on people,” Joel adds. “We rehearsed our arses off to try and get good at playing live, which is something people found really compelling.”
“We found our feet in the public eye, and people like to watch that progression,” Theo contributes, while Joff puts it down to “blackmail.”
So not because you’re a great band, then?
“Even if you sometimes feel it, you do a couple of interviews and say that, then you have to read that back…” starts Joel, making a face.
“The pubs aren’t open for me to avoid that,” adds Theo. “Maybe I can start saying it when I’m a bit looser of tongue.”
We promise to check back in on 21st June.
“Fingers crossed we don’t fuck it on the fourth album”Theo Ellis
Right now, the UK scene is full of big bands with big egos. “Fuck yeah we’re important” – Matty Healy, The 1975; “We’re better than all the other bands” – Alex Rice, Sports Team; “All I care about is stadiums and culture” – YUNGBLUD. But Wolf Alice refuse to carry themselves with even a hint of arrogance. “I understand that it’s fun, especially when you’re a fan of a group that has that kind of energy,” says Theo. “I just don’t think the four of us have ever engaged with that.”
“I don’t think we like conflict, do we?” asks Ellie. “I had anxiety for five years after Fat White Family said we sound like drivel for angry nine-year-olds and we said fuck off.”
Whichever road we go down, Wolf Alice seem to only care about the music and the live show. “Well, what else does come with being a band?” asks Theo. “Tell me, and I’ll see if I want it. We’ve got a few more albums until we start worrying about legacy, and we weren’t cool in the beginning, so I don’t have to worry now.”
“You’re making me feel like we’ve been doing it wrong,” starts Joff. “Maybe we need to sell out… how do we sell out?”
There aren’t many bands like Wolf Alice who are unafraid to speak their minds but never doing it to chase clout. “Look at us,” starts Theo. Joel “doesn’t have it in [him] to be rebellious at anything,” he says, while Ellie explains she’s “far too much of a pussy. I think there are a lot of bands doing what we’re doing; it’s just that not many of them are getting much media spotlight.”
“We do make decisions honestly, and people can relate to that,” offers Joel. “It can be quite refreshing to just be like, ‘Oh, they’re just a band’.”
But what a band they are.
Third album ‘Blue Weekend’ is full of confidence. “I still feel like it’s a secret. I keep forgetting that people know it’s coming out, then telling them the wrong day,” admits Theo. Instead of 11th June, he’s telling people it’s 21st June, the date of the potential lifting of lockdown. The band know they need to do something to celebrate their album’s release, but “foresight is not really anyone’s friend at the moment,” explains Theo. “You’re both really anxious and really present at the same time. We’ll probably just do cans in the park with everyone who brought the album.”
“Why are you laughing?” asks Joel. “That sounds like something we’d do.”
“It’s proper exciting because it’s been ages since we released an album,” Joff starts, admitting the four-year gap between records is a mix of choice and circumstance. After the touring for ‘Visions’ was wrapped up, the band took a much-needed six-month break from Wolf Alice. It wasn’t a conscious separation, “but we didn’t rehearse, so that was quite nice.”
That holiday was needed to piece their brains back together. After releasing their debut, the band hit the road hard, took three months to write and record ‘Visions’, then returned to the stage. “There wasn’t a gap between the first album and the second album,” explains Theo. “We didn’t give anyone a break from Wolf Alice.”
Time away wasn’t all that relaxing for Ellie, who hadn’t really written anything new since ‘Visions’. “There was this nagging thought, ‘you haven’t written any new songs’, which was quite daunting.” It didn’t get any easier once the band reconvened in an Airbnb to start sketching out the record. “We never have a conscious direction. We just started playing music with zero judgement to see what would come out.”
“Lyrically, I was trying to capture what some of these songs felt like when we were writing them,” Ellie says. “Trying to recreate a feeling is sometimes impossible, and it’s really annoying to base your success on that. No one can really tell you how to succeed. It’s just how we work, though.”
“There’s always a certain amount of pressure,” considers Joff. “If you’re not trying to better yourself, then what are you doing? You’re just kind of going through the motions, which is not fair on yourselves or the people that are buying the music.”
Writing ‘Blue Weekend’ took ages. According to Theo, “this one was the hardest one to get to the right place, ready for us to record it.” In January last year, they headed into the studio with producer Markus Dravs. Rather than chasing whatever felt exciting, Dravs made the band question the purpose of every moment of the record. Lockdown meant they had all the time in the world. “It would have been hard regardless, but we were isolating because of COVID, and there were zero distractions apart from the news.”
By August, ‘Blue Weekend’ was completely finished. “It felt like fucking years, though,” remarks Joff. “When you go that deep, you definitely need to give yourself some space afterwards. There were times after we’d finished the tracking where I just didn’t know if it was awful or not. I was trying to be positive, but inside I was worrying, ‘fuck, what if this is really shit?’”
There’s always a little bit of doubt after finishing an album but not to this extent. Having revisited it after some distance, Joff’s upgraded his opinion from “awful” to “really good”.
“When I heard a lot of the demos Ellie was sending over, there was this new maturity in the songwriting. It gave the record a glue, and I felt like there was more of a spine running through it. I doubted that for the next six months, but now I think the album is fucking great again,” explains Theo, before a brief pause. “I think. Help?”
“If you’re not trying to better yourself, then what are you doing?”Joff Oddie
According to Ellie, ‘Blue Weekend’ doesn’t feel like a departure, but it is different. “We haven’t really changed how we do things or the values we place on things, so I don’t hear it as different, but maybe some fans will?” The whole record does sound more cinematic and lush than previous releases. “That’s cool,” continues Ellie. “I like both of those worlds.”
‘Blue Weekend’ feels like the logical step to ‘Visions’ cut ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’, which has slowly become their biggest song. “When we made that song, we knew it was different. Maybe we were a bit scared by it?” offers Ellie.
“We’re an indie band, and it’s almost like we didn’t want to let it be the pop song it became. We had so many different versions of it,” says Theo. “If you don’t come from that world, then it’s not natural, so we tried to make it worse until we figured, ‘fuck it, let’s just make that song good’.”
“It’s weird to think we make pop music. In our souls, maybe we didn’t feel that we’re a pop band,” Ellie says. Despite the accolades, Wolf Alice still don’t feel like a pop band.
“I bet pop stars are always warm and have sushi,” reasons Theo.
“You’re cold and have peanut butter in your ears,” adds Joff.
We don’t ask why.
“There’s always someone to disappoint”Ellie Rowsell
The band aren’t too worried about the expectations of others because, as Theo explains, “I don’t really know what’s expected of us, to be fair. We’ve managed to put out broad strokes in terms of what genres we’ve played around with, so we can get away with doing quite a bit.”
“There are certain people who listen to us for certain things,” says Ellie, and while that’s not at the forefront of why the band make the decisions they have, “we do care. There’s always someone to disappoint.”
She’s more comfortable with her voice across ‘Blue Weekend’, both in what she’s saying and how she says it. “I just wanted to have a bit more fun with it. I don’t want to listen back to my records and hear that I was holding myself back. I would regret that more than anything I could possibly say in a song.”
“When I was younger, I didn’t want to write love songs because I was trying to go against what perhaps people expect of a 21-year-old girl writing songs in her bedroom. Now I don’t care really,” Ellie continues. “I don’t write songs a lot, so when I do, I feel like they need to be truthful, to some extent.”
That’s not to say every track on ‘Blue Weekend’ is some confessional diary entry, but the emotion behind them is always authentic. “I’m always going to choose writing about something that means something to me over something that might be cooler or more interesting.”
Joel has already shown the record to friends and family who have seen the band since their Old Blue Last days and heard every bad demo they’ve ever done. “This is the record that’s moved them the most emotionally. I’ve seen this set of songs affect them in a different way.”
Like the title suggests, ‘Blue Weekend’ feels aspirational, angry and emotional. “There is hope in this record. We could fucking do with some of that right now,” starts Joel, with Theo adding: “With everything that’s happened, I latched onto that hope more when I was listening back. It felt important.”
‘Smile’ is partly inspired by the reaction ‘Yuk Foo’ got (“I feel like I’m always trying to defend it”), but the track is also “about people building their own narrative about you and that being frustrating,” says Ellie, “whether that’s someone making their mind up about you before they’ve got to know you or someone placing stereotypes on you.” Across the track, she makes it clear she’s sensitive, not cute. Angry, not mad or unhinged. “I have power,” she promises. “Wind me up, and this honeybee stings.” Elsewhere, the brooding ‘Feeling Myself’ sees Ellie take influence from the growing number of non-male musicians writing about self-love and their experiences.
It’s more open than she’s ever been before, but Ellie says she still finds it hard to talk about being a woman in the industry. “A lot of my experiences seem quite similar to that of these guys. It is not always clear when something is because of who you are, your circumstance or your gender. I’m still figuring all that stuff out. I remember seeing a headline from an interview I did which was like, ‘I’ve never felt like a girl before, I don’t even know what it means, I’m just me’. And yeah, once I would want to try and be the same as everyone else, but actually, I am a woman, and I’m proud of that. It has informed a lot of my life, and I understand that it makes an impact. I don’t shy away from it now.”
Wolf Alice have never shied away from speaking their mind about the state of the world, but every hashtag has come alongside real-world action. They curated a night of cover sets in aid of Bands 4 Refugees and contributed their cover of The Only Ones’ ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ for the charity vinyl ‘Songs For The National Health Service’. Last year, Joff released a solo album with all the proceeds going to The Trussell Trust, and in 2019, the band joined a boycott of Eurovision over host country Israel’s history of human rights violations.
With bands now being called out as often for not speaking up about a cause as they do for getting political, “it’s tricky,” explains Ellie. “Once you’ve said one thing, does it make you look like you don’t care if you don’t join in with every conversation? You’ve still got your opinions, even if you haven’t put them online.”
“There’s a pressure to post stuff on social media, but there isn’t the same pressure to actually go and do things in the real world,” continues Joff, who feels like there’s “an odd disconnect at the moment. It’s one thing speaking on the internet, and that’s great, but it is what it is. I would encourage people to get involved in their own communities and participate. it’s a bit sad when activism purely lives online.”
“I do understand the trepidation and the potential anxiety it can cause because the climate we’re living in at the moment is very unregulated,” considers Theo. “It’s amazing, but also really dangerous. Sometimes silence is being complicit, but that’s not the same for everything.”
Despite all the shit they get for speaking out, he doesn’t “regret anything we’ve done. I regret shitloads of stuff I’ve done in my life, though. It’s being a part of the collective that is Wolf Alice that actually makes me a better person.”
“I was trying to be positive, but inside I was worrying ‘fuck, what if this is really shit?’”Joff Oddie
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that six-month break that allowed Ellie to reflect on everything the band has achieved. “It’s this weird time that’s made me reflect more because everything has been taken away from you.” She’s surprised by how much she’s missed touring, a stark contrast to Theo who “always misses it a bit, even when we’re doing it.”
“Not that I wasn’t grateful before, but because I was so immersed in it, I didn’t really see it for what it was. When we lost it, I adapted my psyche to accept that maybe we won’t be able to do it again. It’ll be almost like being reborn,” she continues before cracking up, knowing she’s taken it too far. “I’ve just got an appreciation for it that I haven’t had since we first started touring. It’ll be a dream come true again when it comes back.”
“That kind of intense connection you feel on stage is something that I’ve not really found anywhere else in life,” adds Joff. “We’re so lucky to be able to do it that it does feel like there’s a bit missing at the moment.”
And despite all the successes of the past, the band aren’t moving forward with lofty expectations. “We’re ambitious,” promises Theo. “But I wouldn’t be pissed off if something didn’t happen because of what’s happened before.”
“It’s about being able to do what you feel ready to do,” continues Ellie. “You mentioned headlining The O2 and I *sharp intake of breath*. You don’t know what your goalposts are going to be in five years.”
“I was just happy to play Old Blue Last at one point,” grins Joel, as Ellie explains that right now, “my goal is to play Old Blue Last again.”
After making it two for two regarding Mercury Prize nominations (an exclusive club featuring the likes of Stormzy, Oasis and Amy Winehouse), does it matter if ‘Blue Weekend’ doesn’t get the nod once more?
“Let’s not talk about that,” starts Ellie.
“This record doesn’t have to do anything,” continues Theo. “It’s already a success for us because we like it enough to release it. It’s done something good for the four of us, so whatever happens happens,” he continues, modest to the last, before breaking into a grin. “But if we don’t win a fucking BRIT…”
Taken from the May 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Wolf Alice’s album ‘Blue Weekend’ is out 11th June.