Wolf Alice on winning the Mercury Prize, defying non-believers, and how friendship is key to their chemistry

Wolf Alice on winning the Mercury Prize, defying non-believers, and how friendship is key to their chemistry

From being dismissed by label bosses to sweeping some of music’s biggest awards, rock band Wolf Alice tell us about their unlikely journey to the Clockenflap stage

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Joff Oddie, Joel Amey, Ellie Rowsell and Theo Ellis make up rock band Wolf Alice.
Photo: Sarah Louise Bennett

When Wolf Alice appeared onstage in London to collect their Mercury Prize in September, lead singer Ellie Rowsell was so shell-shocked she could barely speak. Swooping in to avert the audience’s gaze from his breathless band mate, bassist Theo Ellis took to the microphone to tell the audience about their early years, when the now-critically-acclaimed rock group encountered music industry executives who would tell them, “You don’t look like a band at all”, and, “What are you supposed to be?” alongside various sexist comments about having a female member in the band.

The London four-piece’s monumental win at the annual awards, given to the best album by a British artist that year and accompanied by a cash prize, served as a defiant gesture to those who once doubted them. Chatting to Young Post, guitarist Joff Oddie was exhausted yet elated just two weeks after his band’s triumph. “We never thought anything like that would happen to us. We were completely awestruck and bowled over,” he said over the phone from his home, where he was enjoying some down time while looking ahead to performing at Clockenflap festival in Hong Kong next weekend.

Regarding Ellis’s comments on stage at the awards, Oddie chuckles: “I would have maybe thrown in a few more thank yous.” But the guitarist, who co-founded Wolf Alice with Rowsell in 2010, says Ellis was speaking for the band when he took a swipe at industry naysayers. “We’d have people going, ‘What are you? You don’t make sense,’” he says adding: “We’d get pretty down about that, really.”

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“One of the things I love about the band is our fluidity,” he adds. “[The award] definitely gives us confidence and affirms what we’re doing.”

Rowsell added in a separate interview last month: “We don’t bend towards other people’s rules ... If we enjoy something, we’ll just do it.”

The band’s sound, often labelled as genre-shifting and hard to pin down, draws from across the musical spectrum to produce albums that can be vicious punk on one song, sombre folk the next, and emotive shoegaze or space rock elsewhere. If their debut My Love Is Cool, which also received a Mercury nomination, documented the whirlwind innocence of a first love, then its epic follow-up, Visions of a Life, is about becoming older, wiser and knowing when to walk away.

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What the singer did manage to gasp before she fell prey to her nerves was: “It means so much to pick this up with my three best friends.” The closeness between band members (which also includes Joel Amey on drums) is palpable, whether on stage, in interviews or on a record. A prominent theme on both albums is friendships, particularly how they change as we get older, and the value of friends through tough times.

“We really know and respect each other, and that’s vitally important,” Oddie said last year. He now adds: “I think we have a lot more confidence in ourselves and each other. And we know when to intervene: we know when to say something and when not to say something - knowing when to say you need to go and spend some time on this, or you need to stop putting pressure on yourself.”

Eight years ago, Wolf Alice began as an acoustic duo Oddie responded to an advert Rowsell had placed online calling for other musicians to jam with. The pair hit it off straight away. “I was really excited to meet someone who could sing and use her voice to write meaningful lyrics and was into the same music. As I come from a very rural background, there weren’t a lot of people who were into alternative music where I was from,” the guitarist says.

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“There was a definite sense that our weaknesses were filled in by each other’s strengths.”

As the band’s “self-contained” songwriter, Rowsell draws from her own experiences to pen lyrics that are often flooded with fiery emotion. She channels her anger with deafening screams on Visions’ lead single, Yuk Foo, while the celestial, tear-jerking opener Heavenward mourns the death of a close friend. Unusually, the songs can sit next to each other on record without feeling jarring; their intensity and earnestness the binding thread.

Next weekend will be the band’s second visit to Hong Kong, after a fashion brand jetted them in for less than 24 hours in 2013 to perform an in-store session. Choosing sight-seeing over sleep, they ate dim sum and caught a cab to the beach at 6am to watch the sun rise. Clockenflap will be different, expects Oddie, who says the four are excited finally to entertain their fans with a full set.

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“At festivals we like to keep the energy up and give preference to the rockier numbers and try and get people jumping around, that’s the intention.”

And after touring ends? “Go on holiday!” he says. “We need a month or so just to reconnect with our families and what’s left of our friends after being on tour for so long. For this album we’ve played something like 189 shows, so we’ll need a period of decompression at the end of it. Then we’ll come back together and make a fresh start putting together the next record. We’re super excited about the prospect of new music again.”

Wolf Alice will perform at Clockenflap on Sunday. For a chance to win a pair of weekend passes, sign up for our contest; or visit Clockenflap to buy them

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
The band playing to win

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