In November 2012 Ellery Roberts ended the band out of nowhere with a YouTube upload, a cryptic statement and nothing else – here he goes deep on why
Five years ago, on November 24 2012, WU LYF drew the curtain on what had been a thrilling but short-lived show. The North Manchester band that had captivated press and exhilarated audiences with just one album, 2011’s Go Tell Fire To The Mountain, called time on their career via one last song uploaded to YouTube titled “T R I U M P H”, along with a statement from frontman Ellery James Roberts, wherein he resigned and brought an end to the group. If it came as a surprise to devastated fans, it came as a surprise to Roberts’ bandmates too.
The self-described “heavy pop” quartet WU LYF, AKA North Manchester’s World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation, were an intriguing, unique proposition, a collective and mini-society not too dissimilar to Odd Future in function, another group harnessing the fresh power of the internet to create new worlds and communities for fans and crucially, a sense of belonging. WU LYF could lazily be categorised as “indie rock” but in reality their expansive, cinematic sound, carried by Roberts’ guttural, raw howl, set them apart from their peers.
After Go Tell Fire to the Mountain was released, WU LYF performed on The Late Show With David Letterman at the start of 2012 before touring across Europe and the United States. And then...it was over.
An air of intrigue had always surrounded WU LYF, so it was fitting that Roberts’ cryptic statement was the only official line on the band’s split. “The whole mystery of WU LYF was the unspoken space for people to imagine what was going on,” Roberts he says, glad to finally open up on his time in the band five years on from its dissolution.
Having moved back to Manchester from Amsterdam just over a year ago, and immersing himself in another musical project called LUH for the past few years, Roberts has since oriented himself towards the more grounded environment of his community, and to creating for the passion and fun of it. His path to this newfound harmony hasn’t been the smoothest, though as Roberts reflects on the fire that burned twice as bright for half as long, it becomes clear he’s all the better for taking it.
What were the things that made you want to stop everything in the way that you did?
Ellery Roberts: It was quite a dark moment in a lot of senses in my life. But it teaches you a lot. It all coming to an end was more of a revelation on my part. The band had this initial period of genuine, pure pursuit. But then you go on the road and we were 19-21. There’s a two-year period of all of this happening. Your eyes are opened to a lot of the world and you can see that a lot things aren’t right, thus I decided I need to fundamentally get things right with myself.
Was it something that you’d been thinking about for a while?
Ellery Roberts: To be honest, yeah – the whole period of outward success was a downward spiral of disillusionment. I was 20-years-old, doing all I had ever dreamed of since first starting to play music. I was really doing it. It’s not that it didn’t live up to an expectation, it was making me feel hollow. I think there was a lot of aspiration I had on an individual level, very inspired by the world we were existing in, and this youthful sense of wanting to do something that makes change. The deeper I got into that, the more I understood how absurd and naive I was.
This is probably where the real split in the band was forming – the rest of them, I think fundamentally they respected me and what I wanted to be about but also they just wanted to make good music. They wanted to be a great rock and roll band. Looking back, we could have gone on to be a great band, straight-up make people feel good, have a good time. But at that moment in my life, I didn’t value that. Or I had lost the value of that.
How did your side of the actual announcement come about?
Ellery Roberts: Looking back on it, it was a very egoistic move on my part. It made the whole thing about me, whereas it was always much bigger than me, it was about the four of us. You know I always feel like there were two versions of the band: four kids from North Manchester playing music and then there was me posting online, talking to this community that we had been building. I wanted to create something.
Later, I learned about Genesis P-Orridge and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth and saw that they had sort of done everything I had aspired to. I was like ‘oh well, the Lucifer Youth Foundation already exists, it just doesn’t need that name’. In that sense, I felt like it was that community on the internet that made the band give that context to the music. At that time I was on quite bad terms with the rest of the people in the band and I just found it a bit more direct to be able to say [it] to, *sigh*, everybody at once.
“It was very damaging for myself on a mental level and I think a sense of betrayal for people who at one time were my best friends, the only friends” – Ellery Roberts
It was very damaging for myself on a mental level and I think a sense of betrayal for people who at one time were my best friends, the only friends. But I see everybody from time to time, the rest of the band, and we’re all on good terms, a lot better terms than we had been in the past. Not as close, obviously, but there’s no resentment really there now. I think everybody embraced their own path, really exploring who they are. It makes me really happy to see Tom doing his Francis Lung stuff which is always who Tom was and what he wanted to do. For me, it’s this sense that I was trying to be in control over exactly what it was, and the reality was that not everybody wanted my vision for the world and how their lives should play out. Letting go was a big part of me stopping.
Did it go down as you expected?
Ellery Roberts: I didn’t really look at the internet for a couple of months. People mentioned things to me and I think people were generally just like, ‘Oh, that’s a shame, there was potential there’. Young bands struggle with the difficulties of hype, which I think was a significant part of it, in that everything happened very fast. If it took a slow time and no-one really looked at the first album when we were just getting a sense that we could build and really find what we wanted to do, then we probably would have had longevity.
I’ve come to understand I have a sense of impatience. I hope these days I’m letting things be a little easier. But certainly at that time I was like, ‘this isn’t good enough, we need to be doing more’. I got really sick of the apathy around the group of like doing new things; the classic thing of we finished touring that album, came back to Manchester, all didn’t really enjoy each others’ company and then were trying to write new songs and I was coming to the table with all these ideas and songs that I’d written and nobody was being like, ‘Yeah, great, let’s work on it’. Not really being on the same page. For me as a songwriter, I’m stagnant. So there was a lot of quite obvious reasons why things didn’t work out.
Since then, you’ve released music on people’s radars again with the collaborative project Lost Under Heaven and I wonder what your relationship is with the industry...
Ellery Roberts: They’re very manipulable, it’s a very flimsy sense of reality, creative industries. Fundamentally, I think if you’re making something that gives you joy, people will find it and come to it. Working with Ebony [Hoorn, LUH] is a very nice collaboration because it’s just experimenting and pushing each other. I think WU LYF had quite a lot of arrogance and grandiose-ness to the whole mindset of it. I couldn’t care less about success in the vision of what success means. It doesn’t really entice me – just to be able to play and make music and live is fundamentally what I’m doing.
What’s stayed the most with you from WU LYF days? What would be the main lessons you’ve learnt and want to share with other musicians?
Ellery Roberts: The thing that stayed was the first-time connection with people. The physicality and group catharsis of singing those songs in front of the people. Any advice I could have – and this advice I’m gonna give [to] myself – is just make sure you can put on an incredible live show. Really just put all your energy into live shows. That temporal communication with people is the purest thing in music. And just enjoy it.
“The physicality and group catharsis of singing those songs in front of the people....that temporal communication with people is the purest thing in music” – Ellery Roberts
Everything is structurally pushed towards you having this hunger and trying to satisfy this hunger with so many things that leave you more hungry, it’s like the hungry ghosts. I understand the patterns of behaviour when I’m getting into a negative mindset that’s repeating these same things. I guess that’s the thing from WU LYF where I didn’t have any understanding of that. I was just like, this is how I am, this is how I feel about things. Actually that’s a complete creation, how you feel and how you react, so just observe it and try and let go of those things that don’t make you feel good.
Much of what WU LYF were doing and your investment in it seemed to be about a dissatisfaction with the world. What is your relationship with the present day world? What things are you celebrating and what things get you through the tough times?
Ellery Roberts: I studied Politics and International Relations for a while and the more I learned about the world, the more I was like, it’s kinda sick to its core. What gives me joy or solace in what seems like a very dark age of human history [is] that there are the keepers of the flame, the people who align themselves with what’s important and pass that on. It’s always gonna be there, no matter how oppressive the whole construction of society is.
It’s never gonna be rainbows and utopia. When I was in WU LYF I had a sense of utopia whereas now I see it as a fundamental human struggle, this principle that everything you experience on a individual level is experienced by society on a wide, wide level, like the micro and the macro. This is sort of the reason I stopped WU LYF – until I’ve got these things right in my head, I’m not much use for anybody, I’m not gonna help anybody ’cause I’m still gonna be with my egoistic desires and everything.
What I try to do is just [engage with] that sense of solidarity and community and support. Seeing the people who are doing good, supporting them, helping them and people who want to aspire to something more, to speak to them. That’s the main reason I do Lost Under Heaven other than that I like singing and writing songs; to be out there and to connect with people and communicate with people and share ideas and discuss ideas.
In recent years, artists have regrouped for various reasons, whether it’s a spot to headline Coachella or say, A Tribe Called Quest got back together because they were so sick of the state of the world and felt the need to make an album. Can anything ever truly end?
I mean there’s always the potential that something might happen tomorrow. There’s always possibility and I’ve got a lot of love for everybody that I worked with – Tom, Evans, Joe, Warren and Jon who managed us, the whole team, you know? But I think we’re lucky we weren’t at such a stage of success and notoriety… it would be a pub crawl nostalgia-fest.
Joe’s making a lot of interesting music now, Evans has gone into dance music and Tom obviously with his songs, they’re all continuing to be interesting artists in their own right. In that sense, when a point in the future comes where we feel like getting together then maybe we will. But I don’t have any sense of reason to right now, just living my life.
Nothing ever ends. I also quite like the idea of when we’re really old and it being called the Lucifer Youth Foundation and like, there’s no youth in the Youth Foundation. Eternal youth. Zimmer frames. Grey hair.