The four-piece c, their Mercury Prize-nominated second album, and wanting to sleep with your friends
17 September 2018 | Alexandra Pollard | Independent
“Yuk Foo”, the lead single from Wolf Alice’s second album, Visions of a Life, is two minutes and 13 seconds of unbridled rage. Over a siren-like guitar riff and screeching feedback, frontwoman Ellie Rowsell declares, “You bore me! You bore me to death.” As each line passes, her voice crescendos to a primal scream. “I wanna f*** all the people I meet. F*** all my friends and all the people in the street.” It is grubby, frantic and hugely cathartic. So the question is… “…How much do I want to f*** all my friends?” interrupts Rowsell with a cackle.
The band are huddled round the table of a pub near London’s King’s Cross. The barman suggests beers all round, but it’s 11.30am – “Who do you think we are?!” – so we’re sharing some water. While preparing for this interview, I was told that Rowsell, despite being the face of the band, will be reticent – that I’ll have to coax her out of her shell. I’ve had to do no such thing.
The trouble with that song, she says, pushing up the sleeves of a flimsy white t-shirt, is that people take everything she sings literally. “I think it happens a lot more when you’re a woman,” says bassist Theo Ellis. “What you say is heralded as fact. Because a girl said she wants to f*** all her friends, it means she’s promiscuous.”
“But then I wasn’t making it up,” explains Rowsell with a shrug. “Obviously I don’t want to sleep with all my friends, but it came from a real place. The song is about being full of rage, and you exaggerate things massively when you’re in that kind of state.” Besides, she says, “there aren’t enough songs about how you feel about your friends. Friendship’s far more complicated than a romantic relationship, isn’t it?”
Putting the song out as a lead single was “the bravest thing we did on that record”, says drummer Joel Amey – and it was a decision that proved divisive. Wolf Alice are hardly strangers to potent, abrasive guitars, but for those who associated them with shimmering dream-pop songs like “Bros”, from their 2015 debut album My Love is Cool, it felt jarring. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh you think you’re hardcore now you’ve said f*** 10 times?’” recalls Rowsell. She couldn’t help but notice a double standard. “Why are bands like Black Flag allowed to write a song about drinking beer, and they’re cult and amazing, and then you write this song that’s supposed to be a burst of anger, and everyone’s like, ‘That’s so lame.’”
Wolf Alice’s anger can be very focused. They, along with musicians such as Roger Waters and Brian Eno, as well as writers, theatre directors, filmmakers, signed a letter calling for a boycott of Eurovision 2019 hosted by Israel. I ask them why. Guitarist Joff Oddie points to the moment when “Israelis started shooting and killing people in their tens and hundreds… We agreed years ago that we wouldn’t go there, but this was about agreeing that we would make it public. It’s been the worst period of violence since the bombings in Gaza in 2014, so [for us] it was just a big kick up the arse to say, look, we do support this.”
Rowsell continues: “If you say you’re not gonna go to Israel, then lots of people ask you why you’re going to other countries where you don’t believe in their government’s actions. People ask, ‘Why do you go to America? Does that mean you support Trump?’ And I can see why [they] think that’s hypocritical, but you won’t do anything if you think like that. Everywhere’s f****d, and in terms of the cultural boycott of Israel, that’s what the Palestinian people have asked for.”
Musically, too, Wolf Alice show a willingness to put everything on the line. Each track on Visions of a Life confirms they are one of the most innovative, uninhibited guitar bands around, punching their way out of whatever box anyone tries to put them in. Second single, “Don’t Delete the Kisses” is iridescent and contemplative, while the syncopated strut of the third, “Beautifully Unconventional”, written from the perspective of Christian Slater’s character in the 1988 film Heathers, shows their poise and wit. It’s acquired them a fiercely loyal fan-base since they broke out with their debut EP, Blush, in 2013. By the end of that year, the buzz around them had grown so loud that BBC 6 Music declared them “the most blogged-about band of the year”. My Love is Cool, released two years later, was certified Gold.
These days, Wolf Alice are just happy to still be in the conversation. When they discovered that Visions of a Life had been shortlisted for this year’s Mercury Prize – the second time they’ve achieved this honour – they cried. “Everyone’s always like, ‘That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,’” says Ellis, fiddling with the safety pin in his ear, “so for it to happen again … it makes us feel like we’re a proper band.”