Lead singer Ellie Rowsell talks us through gnarly hand injuries, defying expectations and bottling up two years of relentless touring
Flickering and disorientating – the dizzying equivalent of trying to navigate a house of mirrors after sinking two bottles of Buckfast – Wolf Alice’s “Yuk Foo” sets alight to all the kerosene-soaked chaos that comes with two gruelling years touring the world, exorcises every last trace of tedium, and watches the whole lot burn with a menacing cackle. “You bore me to death,” roars a venomous frontwoman Ellie Rowsell, rawer than ever, “No, I don't give a shit.” It’s an accurate first glance into Visions of a Life, a second album that sees Wolf Alice bolder and more boundary-breaking than ever.
After releasing their debut My Love Is Cool in 2015, the band found themselves in a spin of Brit nominations and Mercury prize nods; shredding stages they never even imagined themselves playing, contending with bloodied knuckles along the way, and, eventually, battling instead against their inability to relax again. Trading punches with the ups and downs of the road, and the post-tour malaise that followed, Wolf Alice have broken through to the other side, and their second record Visions of a Life is the outcome. Viciously rattling the cage of expectation, and veering from acerbic rage right through to the polar opposite of second single “Don’t Delete the Kisses’’ – an unfiltered expression of loved-up contentment – this is the opening gambit of a band ready to up the stakes tenfold.
We caught up with a very tired Ellie Rowsell, mid-way through Wolf Alice’s tour across the US. Between involuntary yawns, she filled us in on the band’s mayhem-filled video for “Yuk Foo”, and the whirlwind that has fuelled their second album as a whole.
You released Wolf Alice’s debut My Love Is Cool two years ago, and in the time since, you’ve barely left the road. That first album took you all across the world, and you even ended up playing on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, with just one record to your name. Did you ever see it coming?
Ellie Rowsell: Playing the Pyramid was definitely a shock, at least at the time we did it. The crowd we had, too, I feel like I never expected that. It was amazing, and definitely a communal highlight for all of us. I also think with the scale of touring we did, we never really stopped to think about it.
I was there for that Glastonbury set and it felt to me like a huge milestone moment for Wolf Alice. What happened with Joff (Oddie, guitarist)’s hand, though? He bled all over his guitar mid-set! It was pretty gnarly to say the least...
Ellie Rowsell: Joff said that it looked way worse than it felt! It added to the show...
“When I run out of things that I need to get out of my system, when I’m not writing songs for my own therapy sessions, I look towards my friends” – Ellie Rowsell, Wolf Alice
How was it, arriving back in London two years on, and trying to adjust to normal life again?
Ellie Rowsell: We wanted some kind of break, but we did feel the pressure. We thought, right, we’ve come back, and we need to check that we do have songs. We brought all the ideas that we collated on the road, took them to a rehearsal room in London, and fleshed them out into proper fully-formed songs. That didn’t take very long, actually. Then, we were afforded some time to chill out. It’s quite hard, though. We didn’t really know how to chill out, after coming from one extreme to the other. It was pretty strange, so we channelled our energy into rehearsing instead.
You must’ve watched a bit of Netflix, though?
Ellie Rowsell: No! You have about two years of catching up to do with your friends and family, so… just trying to get back in the swing of that. And also, a lot of going out.
Your new video for ‘Yuk Foo’ is very fast-paced, and disorientating. It’s very in keeping with the song itself, really...
Ellie Rowsell: Yeah, like you say, because the song’s so fast, heavy and brash, it doesn’t really seem to lend itself to a narrative video. One of the reasons we took ‘Yuk Foo’ to the studio – besides liking it as a song in and of itself – was because we were so excited to play it live. It’s got so much energy, and so we wanted to make a live video to match; short, and manically fast-paced. We did it in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall with a director called Adam Powell (The 1975, Charli XCX). We did it in one day, because we only had one day free to do it. So the whole thing was manic, in a way.
The first two singles people have heard so far from your second record – ‘Yuk Foo’ and ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’ – occupy entirely polarised ends of the emotional spectrum...
Ellie Rowsell: I don’t think we intentionally put out those two songs to be like, these are the two extremes we’ve taken ourselves to – that was kind of a happy accident – but I guess it does show that. Hopefully when people listen to the album in full, things will slot in between those two extremities.
Do you think it’s harder to write an angry song or a love song?
Ellie Rowsell: Oh, definitely the latter. When you’re happy you don’t really want to mull over it. In ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’, suddenly all of these clichés become true. Everyone’s written them already, and it’s hard to find originality in your happiness. Being miserable lends itself to poetry more, I think.
Across Visions of a Life, you keep coming back to being sick and tired of people’s expectations. Which expectations, specifically?
Ellie Rowsell: The expectations around someone in the public eye. The expectations when you’re someone in a band that people like… or don’t like (laughs). The expectations of being someone’s girlfriend, or someone’s friend, and the expectations (that come with) being a woman.
“If you are a band or an artist of some sort, every time you go to LA, you enter the cliché... I find something about England a bit more romantic” – Ellie Rowsell, Wolf Alice
Friendship crops up a lot in Wolf Alice’s music. ‘Bros’, from your debut album, was all about platonic love between two best mates. Friendship is equally prevalent in your new album, especially in moments like ‘Beautifully Unconventional’. Why do you think that is?
Ellie Rowsell: Well, the nice answer is that friendship is one of the best things in the world, and should be celebrated. Quite often, like I was saying before, it’s hard to write about something nice, so it’s a challenge. But actually, I think the more true answer is that when I run out of things that I need to get out of my system, when I’m not writing songs for my own therapy sessions, I look towards my friends. Oh, I’ll write about my friend Hannah. You know.
You ended up working with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Paramore) on Visions of a Life, and travelled to his studio in the States to work on the album. Wolf Alice got to experience the whole rock cliche of being in a band, making it big and jetting off to LA, first hand. How was it?
Ellie Rowsell: If you are a band or an artist of some sort, every time you go to LA, you enter the cliché. It’s one of those places; you go there, and all the rumours are true. It’s mental. We were working hard, though, six days a week in the studio. I’m not going to say we could’ve been anywhere, though, because that’s not true – it certainly wasn’t London! For one, you know the perfect summer evening, around 6pm – I think people call it the paradise hour – it’s like that every fucking day! Nature is on LA’s side! We found a little LA family out here, too, and all lived in the same house. It was a bit like a really shit Netflix show. You do feel a bit like you’re on the set of a movie there, which can be troubling. I find something about England a bit more romantic.
‘Yuk Foo’ is an excellent spoonerism. Do you have any other favourites?
Ellie Rowsell: Wait… what are they called again? Spoonerisms. I’m sure I have a spoonerism in the back of my mind. I’m sure I’ve said a terrible one by accident. Um. Nope. I don’t have one. Sorry.
Dirty Hit release Visions of a Life on September 29