Wolf Alice On Their Crazy Success And What Comes Next
Over the last five years, the British quartet Wolf Alice have built up the kind of career arc that feels like the beginnings of a storied career. After a couple initial iterations, the group cohered into a lineup consisting of frontwoman Ellie Rowsell, guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis, and drummer Joel Amey before launching properly with a duo of EPs and a 2015 debut that created a wildfire of buzz around the band in their native UK. That debut, My Love Is Cool, delivered on the hype: Nominated for prestigious awards like the Mercury and Ivor Novello and earning glowing reviews, Wolf Alice beat the capricious cycle common in the internet era (and infamously somewhat more common with British outlets). Sometimes an artist is built up to be torn down soon after. But Wolf Alice convinced a whole lot of people that they were the real deal, and their ascent thus far has been unwavering.
The most recent chapter, of course, came with the release of their latest album Visions Of A Life in September of last year. Visions Of A Life defied a lot of the stereotypical ways these stories can go, showing Wolf Alice confidently obliterating the idea of a sophomore slump and brushing away the possibility of a buzz band where it only clicked once. More expansive, denser, and continuing to mine the rich combination of ’90s alt-rock touchstones that have often defined Wolf Alice’s sound, it was an album that seemed to confirm the common assertion that the band was a bright new hope in the lineage of Brit-rock.
Along the way, this has made for something of an imbalance for the group. While they are feverishly-covered and a famous name in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, Wolf Alice has remained more of a cult concern Stateside. Maybe that will soon change. Those who have found them here love them with the same kind of fervor that has fueled their career overseas, and they are capable of making the kind of soaring, emotive anthems that are reaching for a universality unmoored from scene, country, era, or genre.
Last week, I saw Wolf Alice play at Lisbon’s NOS Alive festival. The contrast was evident: While the group sells out large clubs in American cities, they were billed towards the top of a lineup, fitting right in with this year’s guitar-heavy selection. And they took the stage like stars, kicking up a storm of distortion and huge choruses for a crowd that spilled out from the sides of the tent stage Wolf Alice occupied. (As one of the only main stages at NOS, it’s a big tent stage, but still too small to contain the amount of people who’d gathered for the group’s mid-evening set.) Before that, though, I caught up with Rowsell and Amey backstage to talk about Visions Of A Life, their rise and how they feel now, touring America vs. touring Europe, and having existential breakdowns on an airplane.
STEREOGUM: UK hype cycles have a bit of a reputation of being destructive to some artists, but that didn’t happen with you guys. My Love Is Cool came out, was nominated for all these awards, your stature increased. How did you insulate yourselves from the pressure of having to follow all of that up? Or did it not factor in as much since there was just constant movement at the time?
ELLIE ROWSELL: The experiences that you go through between [your debut and your second album] are so different that that pressure went past me. I wasn’t comparing the two. You have your whole life to write your debut. I think we were lucky because we weren’t short on inspiration. The pressure that we should’ve felt — that came from ourselves. So we just had the confidence that we had written something good, and once you have all that the other kind of pressure is totally toned down.
STEREOGUM: You were kind of building it up as you were on the road for the debut, right?
ROWSELL: Not consciously as such, but yeah, we were.
JOEL AMEY: It is that classic thing of, five years to write your debut and five months to write your second. Also you’re lucky, like if your first record connected the way My Love Is Cool did … I found that almost slightly easier rather than a pressure. Because it’s like “Well, shit, people seem to like the things we’re doing.” And I think these songs are better, so it was almost like a building block rather than a hurdle we had to get past.
ROWSELL: Also, you’ve already written and recorded and a lot of the time put out your album by the time people are asking you questions like that. So now I think the third album I’ll be like, [Mock horrified gasp], now that I’ve had all those questions like “Wasn’t it scary to make another album when you’ve got this … ?” I didn’t think about it, it was already done!
AMEY: Damn you, Ryan! [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: As far as I can tell, you are quite big at home and more of a cultishly beloved act in America. I was curious what your experience has been touring the US vs. being here at a European festival and almost headlining.
AMEY: Personally for me, to have a romantic notion of going to the States and then playing our music, the first tour was a blur of excitement, looking out the window, driving through Montana and pushing through the snow in Chicago to soundcheck. A lot of bands get to the stage in England where they don’t want to really retread 10 steps back and start again, setting up your own gear and stuff. That’s what I think, anyway.
But it was such a thrill for us, and people were so kind and supportive from day one in America. We said, 10 people in an American bar can feel like 100 if they’re in the right mood. Vocal and supportive crowds, and we just fed off that, and kept on going back and going back. I think our biggest show to date in the States was the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, and we still found time to go to places we’ve never been before.
STEREOGUM: When Visions Of A Life was coming out, there was some talk of it being a darker album, whether it was getting older and running into some heavy topics, or being on the road and kind of coming in and out of people’s lives, that weird isolation that can also come with being on tour. So now that you took all those experiences and compressed it into an album, then put it out into the world to good reception, are those anxieties and existential questions resolved at all? Or is it weird to revisit it on tour once more, singing the songs every night?
ROWSELL: I do believe I have a better understanding of those anxieties for sure. I guess they haven’t gone away.
AMEY: I always live through Ellie’s lyrics onstage as well. There’s an element of every performance you do, you go into the zone of that song. Maybe it has been resolved in the outside world. But onstage that’s the moment, that’s the thing you’re in, and you have to get back into that zone.
STEREOGUM: There was one thing I found quite relatable when you’ve explained the title of the album, this idea of having visions of these other lives you could’ve had rather than doing those things. Then as you get older, imagining other people you could’ve become. The funny thing to me about it is that, from the outside, being in a successful rock band traveling around the world is the sort of life a lot of people might imagine in those moments, when they’re 15 and dreaming it up or when they’re older and thinking of things they didn’t chase. So sort of similarly, do you feel any resolution there on the other side of Visions Of A Life? Or is it that restless, artistic disposition, like “There’s always this other thing I could be doing.”
ROWSELL: I have a little bit of the “grass is always greener,” you know? It’s only with hindsight where you’re like, “Fuck, that was amazing.” I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to slog it before you make it, or be a fan before you become a musician, because you know what it means to other people.
I don’t really know how to answer it … I always think the songs that sound intense sometimes … they provide you, with hindsight, with what you were feeling at that time. It’s really interesting as you grow older. Especially, as you were saying, after you imagine what it might be like to be yourself as an adult. You write about it when you don’t realize you’re in the heat of the moment, and you look back. Those cliché themes of a second album and traveling around — yeah, they might be cliché but it’s interesting to look back on it.
STEREOGUM: The other thing that hit home in sort of an amusing way was your explanation of “Sky Musings.” I feel like I’ve had that same experience of being trapped on an endless flight, watching some mindless movie, and yet having like a breakdown in transit. Like that existential dread that can settle in when you’re just alone with your thoughts in a metal tube hurtling through the sky.
ROWSELL: I always walk past people on the plane sobbing into a glass of wine, and I’m like “Ah, you’re having a sky musing.”
AMEY: And they’re watching like, Shrek 2. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Sometimes flying is disconcerting enough without watching a heavy drama.
AMEY: The other day we were watching that film The Square. At home, you’re like, “This is sick.” On a plane it was just giving me a freakout. It’s the forward motion, the fact that you’re in a confined space and your life is in someone else’s hands.
ROWSELL: It’s the only time that, if you’re really busy, you push aside their thoughts and have a period of time where they’re not thinking about what you need to do. I have nothing to do except be here and watch this fucking movie.
STEREOGUM: That might be why I hate flying so much. I’ve never thought of it that way. That idea of seven hours of and I can’t escape anything right now.
AMEY: And a free bar. You’re fucked. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: There’s a lot of small stylistic modulation across Visions Of A Life, little touches of heavier, grungier things and then almost dream-pop. Does that come from individual members writing to their own interests? Or all of you experimenting together?
AMEY: I guess a bit of both. We do all come from very different backgrounds and tastes. There are certain things maybe two of us appreciate and two of us can’t stand. After this bit of touring I’m excited to go back into music and ingest as much as I can. Pop or metal, whatever … from that you do take on these little touch points and when you’re playing with a guitar or keyboard, then you pull it all together and those things come together as one. You see the different bits that compliment each other.
STEREOGUM: I talk to a lot of musicians who say they don’t actually listen to much music while they’re writing or recording. They consume it when they’re in between.
AMEY: I don’t remember what I’ve listened to when we’ve been making albums but I know before and after that I’ll listen to shitloads. I think if you want to go down an undiluted path, it probably can get cluttered if I’m like “Oh, that’s really cool” and try to shove that in. At the same time, it’s also great to look for inspiration in art and film.
STEREOGUM: Right, you’ve talked about having more visual inspirations before.
AMEY: Definitely, we had visual touch points for how we wanted songs to feel. Like “Don’t Delete The Kisses,” we’ve said before, that feeling of having your head out the window. Stuff you can relate to that isn’t like, synth pre-sets. You relate to that image you all see when you say that. That’s actually really fucking helpful in the studio. That’s why I think a producer like Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] was great, because you’d say “You know the opening credits for Fantasia? How do we get that vibe?” And he’d say “Well, if I put this microphone over here …”
STEREOGUM: Another thing you’ve talked about before was sort of the sheer highs of releasing My Love Is Cool and touring it, and than that sort of crash landing decompression that comes with returning home to normal life. Maybe I’m projecting from my own experiences on tours, but it’s a hard fall back down to Earth and home and routine. But then you put out a second album to all these accolades and went back on the road. Do you feel like a similar cycle will play out?
AMEY: When I came off the first album cycle, I found a room in London and I definitely had a lot of fun during those couple of months, for better or for worse, while we were writing the album. It wasn’t because I was chasing any particular high from tours, but it was freedom from that aspect [of being in a band]. I think just now, being a couple years older, when I go home the lovely release for me is to just go to a keyboard and chill. Then again, I still have to go to the pub. With age I think you know — or at least you’re supposed to, I don’t know if I do — boundaries of where you should take those highs.
STEREOGUM: I don’t want to give you too much anxiety by bringing up the third album, but now having gotten past this stereotypical sophomore narrative thing, beating the potentially destructive hype cycles, do you have a sense of where you want to take Wolf Alice next? Are you having ideas on the road the same as you did before?
ROWSELL: I’m always torn, because I like performing and touring heavy guitar-based music. And yet I find myself at home often just listening to pop music. Which is probably why we’re too pop for rock and too rock for pop. I never know which one’s going to pull me farthest in one direction.
I feel like the one thing I’ve learned in my short career is to push myself … I think the best work comes when you’re unintentionally inspired. You just have to stay curious and stay proactive and do things. I’ll be honest with you, I definitely feel as if I’m starting to be excited about creating, which I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s getting there.
AMEY: We finished the first song that I’ve been super stoked for, like two days ago, and I was like “Ohhh, shit.” I really enjoyed making it. [Turning to Rowsell] I really like “Stay curious,” by the way, what you just said. That’s a good way of thinking about it. There’s so much great music around the world.
ROWSELL: I really like this quote from Lena Dunham, which is from Girls. She’s actually talking about sex, but I think you can apply it to creating stuff. “What I lack in experience I make up for in curiosity.” [Laughs] I think that’s so true … I often think people are like, “Well I don’t have anything to say, I grew up in the village … ” It doesn’t matter. If you’re curious, you don’t have to have done anything.