Back in 2010, Wolf Alice were hitting the open mic circuit in search of… something. That elusive pot of gold (metaphorical and otherwise) that all young musicians are striving for, even if the first goal is to find someone – anyone – who likes what you do. Which is very hard to achieve in most open mic situations. It’s at that point that confidence can suddenly drain out, and the willpower dissipates.
Five years later, Wolf Alice had become a standard four-piece rock band. Not only were people listening, but they had found their ‘pot of gold’. Their confidence and mental strength has won out. “We wanted to do something but we didn’t know what that something was,” says Joff Oddie, speaking from a mobile-friendly location in his family county of Cornwall. “In hindsight, just us going and doing it was the important thing,” he says of playing acoustic music at open mics, along with singer Ellie Roswell. “We came from bugger all, to be honest. An acoustic guitar, and that was it. For a very long time. The benefit of that is that you can’t hide behind loud drums or bass, or guitar lines, when you are literally playing an acoustic guitar, and singing. So, you’ve got to make sure the songwriting is right. And that is definitely the benefit of that. You can’t hide behind anything.”
2015 was the big one for Wolf Alice, the culmination of their dreams, ambitions, abilities, and circumstances. Their debut album My Love Is Cool was expected to do well, but it ended up surpassing most people’s expectations. It hit No. 2 in the UK Charts and No. 12 on the Billboard Chart in the USA. The band were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, the Ivor Novello Award, a Brit Award for Breakthrough Act and a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, as well as taking the NME Award for Best Live Band. They criss-crossed the UK, USA, Australia, Japan and Europe on the mother of all two-year tours. They had found their metaphorical pot of gold, thanks to that timeless combination of good looks, right timing, great songs, and a hard work ethic. They had all that and more. Wolf Alice flew the flag for indie-rock with youthful vigour.
However they were spent. By the time they got to Margate on 1st October 2016, for By The Sea Festival, they were knackered, and in need of a re-charge. All new, hard working and successful bands are prone to this. Being constantly on the road, living a nomadic life, temptations a-plenty lurking around every corner, and keeping strange hours. It takes a while to adjust to that, and many never really manage to get there, let alone retain the desire and ability to plough on. Indeed, the lead single off their new album was written in response to the deep frustrations that were growing within Ellie’s head: “You bore me, you bore me to death / Deplore me? No, I don’t give a shit,” she screams on the deliciously subversive ‘Yuk Foo’. “The past two years were such amazing highs and then really extreme lows that we’ve never encountered before,” she says. That song is about being, “Sick and fed up of certain expectations. For me, a lot of it is about being a young woman. Even the shit, everyday wolf-whistle thing. As I get older, I feel like ‘Why have I always put up with that?’ When I sing that kind of song, it’s everything that I want to do when that happens.”
Inspired by American hardcore music, she wrote it whilst on tour, a visceral outpouring of emotion. In fact, a lot of the material was written whilst on tour, a fact that Joff thinks saved their bacon. “It would have been difficult had we not worked hard at it. From when My Love is Cool was recorded to when we started recording this one, which was only two and a half years ago, to get an album’s worth of songs together.
“We were very, very diligent. We did a lot of writing on tour. After the end of the last tour we started going through all the demos we had made. We spent about six months doing that, finding the ones we liked. We more or less did that straight away. We didn’t really have any time off.”
I say to Joff that many bands find it simply too distracting to write anything whilst they are on tour. “It’s very hard to completely realise an idea on tour,” he concurs, “but you can take these snapshots, do these demos which you can then expand upon another time. Had we not done that we would have been in trouble.”
Visions of a Life is in many ways a surprise. Excepting ‘Yuk Foo’, mostly gone are the grungy aspects that sparkled on their debut (‘Your Loves Whore’, ‘You’re A Germ’, ‘Giant Peach’, ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’). Instead they have spread their wings on this album, touching bases such as psychedelia, punk, pop, and folk, with plenty of cinematic flourishes along the way, electronics and synths coming to the fore in many places, and Roswell going even deeper vocally, as she alternatively spits and soothes throughout. ‘Heavenward’ (about the death of a friend) is big and euphoric in a shoegazey style, while ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ is an amalgam of 60s pop and new wave. “I wrote it about one of my friends,” Ellie says. “My feelings towards her reminded me of the film Heathers, where everyone is a Heather and you find your other non-Heather.” Then there’s the ethereal, non-guitar ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’, which begins with heavily reverberated and angelic voices, before Roswell embarks on a long two-part sung-spoke monologue about seemingly unrequited love. Furthermore, the sweetly rhythmic ‘Planet Hunter’ harks back to their earlier acoustic folk-pop days before it morphs towards the end into a sweeping cinematic glaze, while ‘Sky Musings’ has a harder-edged industrial sheen, and ‘Formidable Cool’ rides along a mixture of warped desert guitar and cacophonous punk outpourings. Their penchant for minimalist punk also appears on the short and spiky ‘Space & Time’. It is their overriding cause-fighting and sense of hope that carries Wolf Alice through the difficulties, experienced on both a personal and global level. On ‘Sadboy’, manipulated computerised voices vie with Roswell’s softly spoken word, whilst crashing chords co-mingle with sweet acoustica in forming a song that speaks to the young and miserable everywhere.
At the same time, Ellie and Theo Ellis, the bassist with the band, have been doing their bit, in providing something positive with all that frustration and fear, by setting up the Bands for Refugees movement. It was the horrors of Europe’s migrant crisis and the lack of compassion shown in many quarters that spurred them into action, with Ellie contacting Josie Naughton, one of the founders of Help Refugees, the result being that Ellie pulled together some friends for a series of covers nights in London last December. This summer, in the run up to the General Election, the band used their social media to urge young people to make their voice heard, with Ellie fronting a Labour video urging people to register to vote before the deadline. “It’s just growing up and realising the potential of what you can do with the platform you’ve been given,” says Joff. “I think you have to do everything you can to stay hopeful,” says Ellie, “nothing will get better if you’re without hope.”
This sense of purpose helped inform the album and the recording processes. “We worked with a guy called Justin Meldal-Johnsen who is an incredibly talented producer and musician,” says Joff. “He’s fairly young in terms of production. I think he’s only been doing it for seven or eight years. He is a session player for Beck, Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails, and a lot of other people. He’s a big guy in that world. We flew over to LA and lived there for three months specifically to work with him. He’s like us, he’s very eclectic. He’s produced a lot of records with very different sounds (including M83, Paramore, and Tegan and Sara), which was something we wanted to take his skill set from. ‘Let’s turn all of these things your good at, and we’re good at, and make one record’. With this one, we thought we can do what we want.”
Does everyone get involved in the writing process, I ask? “Everyone writes, really. The writing process was the same, if not a lot more rushed this time. The thing we weren’t able to do was play the songs for three or four years before we recorded them, which is the obvious difference from the first one. Maybe there’s a slight bias on the first one with the jump around ones,” says Joff.
What about the album title itself, where does that come from? “It’s to do with the process really. The album having been written as snapshots of time, over a period of time, over the last two and a half years. Those snapshots being divisions of that life. And so, these ‘visions of a life’ being these 12 interpretations of events that occurred within that space.”
Certainly Visions of a Life is very intense and emotional, and ultimately a re-affirmation of the ultra-strong friendships and bonds that the band has forged these last few years. That they have so far survived the inevitable problems that have a way of being magnified ten-fold on tour is testament to their collective strength, and inner resolve to carry on and do the best they can, while they can. And recently, getting back on the live stage was just what they needed. “We’ve spent a month in the States performing some of the (new) album there,” says Joff, who sounds audibly relieved. “It felt like a wonderful release after not playing for ten months. It felt wonderful and beautiful, and a real pleasure to be playing with new material. A new challenge. I mean, we’re still working things out with those songs, so we’re getting used to them as much as everyone else is, I think. It’s wonderful to try and work that out.”
What about the little small venue tour of the UK you are about to do. Why do that? “We wanted to go to some places off the touring grid that people don’t often go to. It works on a lot of levels really. Get some practice in, to be quite frank.” But, after the States, you must be warmed up already?! “I don’t know. We’ll always be ready to go!”
Finally, I ask Joff about Brighton. Isn’t it just another pit-stop as they race around the world once again? “I love Brighton. We always have a fantastic time. I’m sure everyone says that! But, why wouldn’t you like Brighton? It’s gorgeous. On a nice day nothing beats Brighton at all.”
Wolf-Alice is the name of an Angela Carter short story that mixed the fairytale with the folklore, the feral-like protagonist slowly developing consciousness and self-awareness. Meanwhile, Wolf Alice the band are flowering into a deeply impressive, and mature band, one who are not afraid to experiment and branch out into territories they couldn’t have possibly imagined when they were performing at one of those open mic gigs, wondering if anyone was actually listening. Dreams indeed do become reality.