English rock group Wolf Alice sit down with Aisling Kraus to talk about gaining recognition, sexist comparisons and playing on Conan O’Brien.
Wolf Alice narrowly missed Dublin’s bizarre March snow while they paid Belfast’s Mandela Hall a visit to kick off their European tour. The following morning, on arrival in the capital in advance of their performance at the Olympia Theatre, they are welcomed with beaming blue skies. Maybe their sunny, indie rock, sonic delights are a lucky charm. Regardless, the faces of singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell and bassist Theo Ellis shine even indoors, speckled with the glittery remnants of the previous night’s gig.
Adorning cheekbones and stage backdrop alike, glitter features rather prominently at the London four-piece’s live show – a live show that won them “Best Live Band” at the 2016 NME Awards. Rowsell says of award ceremonies: “It depends what you put into it. If you go there with an attitude of ‘let’s have some fun and maybe win an award’, then you have fun — if you go there being like, ‘can’t wait to win this award!’ and then you lose it…” she trails off, not feeling the need to further her explanation. Regarding the NME awards in particular, Ellis adds: “there’s a really good vibe at that thing, for some reason. I think it’s because there’s quite a lot of bands that have seen each other, maybe at festivals or that kind of thing.”
Not only are Wolf Alice award-winning live performers, they are also hugely enthusiastic about attending concerts, big and small. Surely the quartet’s passion for experiencing live music as audience members contributes to their expertise in putting on a captivating show. Ellis references the great diversity of performance styles that impact on him personally, saying “I really admire Drenge in terms of their live show… You’ve got two people who’ve got Loveless as a surname, they’re pretty much born to be really cool. I really admire The 1975’s attitude towards production and putting on a show… the way that they have this drone noise at the beginning.” Rowsell agrees: “The effort and thought that goes into some of those things is like the opposite to some other bands that we really appreciate.”
“I always think the best things are the ones that are really natural and a product of your thoughts at that time, without over-complicating it.”
As well as this, Wolf Alice spend a great deal of time with other musicians. What draws them to other bands as groups of people? “I think a similar attitude,” explains Rowsell, “not necessarily genre or songwriting or anything. Anyone else who has a similar attitude, like ‘[we] can’t believe we’re doing this, let’s really enjoy ourselves and put in some hard work.’ But I guess they’re all kind of indie.” “It’s all got a bass template,” Ellis elaborates, “it’s like Lynx, the deodorant – they all smell the same but a bit different.”
The pair seems reluctant to use a genre label in describing these bands. A trend has appeared recently of current artists rejecting the concept of musical genre, with popular acts such as Halsey speaking out about the restrictive impact it may have. As a band with an extremely diverse stylistic palette, Wolf Alice’s discography to date ranges from delicate, acoustic, folk-inflected tracks such as ‘Turn to Dust’ to fully formed rock head-bangers like ‘You’re a Germ’. Rather understandably in light of this, the group have expressed some distaste at having certain genre labels assigned to their music in the past, in spite of understanding why people would. “I guess it kind of pigeonholes you a bit and then it can be difficult to step outside the box,” explains Rowsell, “but it’s just a natural way of describing something. How else are you going to describe it? You’re not going to be like ‘the guitars are really twinkly’… It’s not helpful sometimes.”
Wolf Alice’s critically acclaimed and NME award-nominated debut album My Love Is Cool is diverse not only in the sonic sense, but also in themes. The band themselves have stated that they see it as a collection of songs as opposed to a fluid, standalone piece of work. “Personally,” Rowsell muses, “I admire people who can do concept albums or… make a plan and stick to it, but I always think the best things are the ones that are really natural and a product of your thoughts at that time, without over-complicating it and even defining it too much. I think that’s why people’s debut albums are often their best, because they don’t overthink things too much.”
“I always admire it when people draw a comparison that is non-gender based.”
Yet another thing that comes along with being part of an act with such a varied sound is the myriad of comparisons to other bands that will inevitably be drawn by music critics and journalists. Wolf Alice have earned some flattering, if slightly inaccurate comparisons (Kings of Leon), some slightly baffling (The xx) and some downright lazy, verging on sexist (Hole, Elastica). Ellis is outspoken on the latter, stating: “I always admire it when people draw a comparison that is non-gender based, and will still be a male-fronted band but with a similar atmosphere. That’s where people are distinguishing themselves as journalists.” “You can say ‘your voice sounds like Harriet Wheeler from The Sundays,’” Roswell adds, “but not ‘your music sounds like Hole’… does it really? Just because we play guitars and have a female vocalist?”
For newly award-winning musicians who have hardly stopped to catch their breath in the past year, Rowsell and Ellis are refreshingly humble and down-to-earth, and appear to be savouring every single reward of their hard-earned success, and are having as much fun as possible along the way. “My favourite day, I think of my whole life, was a show we did in America, the Conan O’Brien show,” Ellis recalls. “It was around when the album was coming out and we’d just got some of the reviews, which were really good, and we were in LA after doing that and we had a New York show, and Glastonbury was that week. That day in particular, we went to a Korean barbecue karaoke bar at about seven in the morning.” This beautifully encapsulates the mindset of the band and the intensity of the year they’ve had. With a six month-long tour spanning both sides of the Atlantic (and including a stop at Electric Picnic) ahead of them, Wolf Alice don’t look set to slow down anytime soon.
My Love Is Cool is out now.