Wolf Alice on Visions of a Life, '80s synth-pop revival, #GrammysSoMale and Backdoors 2018
In an interview with Firstpost, Wolf Alice frontwoman Ellie Rowsell discusses the 80s influences behind their new album, their first-ever India tour and more.
When Ellie Rowsell and Joff Oddie picked the name Wolf Alice from a revisionist folk tale by Angela Carter, they were an acoustic duo playing off-kilter folk music. Deciding to change direction and add electric elements to their sound, they eventually expanded into the four piece act we know today, with bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey. On their first album, My Love is Cool, refusing to be pigeonholed into a single genre, Rowsell and co recorded an eclectic collection of songs that ranged from angsty garage rock to melodic dark pop to dreamy shoegaze. In an indie music scene where bands continually push the envelope seeking new sounds, songwriting techniques and musical styles, Wolf Alice has become its poster child.
In their sophomore album, Visions of a Life, Wolf Alice continue their indie shape-shifting ways in an extension of their impressive debut; only with pointier teeth, sharpened claws, bark and bite. Retaining their abiding desire to evolve sonically, the quartet of North Londoners deliver another delirious explosion of sound filled with raw passion and piercing lyricism. In an interview with Firstpost, Ellie Rowsell — lead vocalist and guitarist — discusses some of the influences behind the album, the '80s synth-pop revival and the gender discrepancy at awards shows.
There is a song for every mood in Visions of a Life with its adventurous combination of punk-driven guitar thrashing, synth-pop infused catchy choruses and the cascading chords of unadulterated shoegazing. Rowsell found inspiration in a wide variety of sources — from Walt Disney's Fantasia to Kanye West to Bran Van 3000. Often, the influences were not just musical. "We use visual or emotive references to describe what we want to attain sometimes and some of the lyrics for 'Formidable Cool' were inspired by the book The Girls by Emma Cline," she says.
In the album's lead single 'Yuk Foo', over a frantic wall of guitar and drums, Rowsell growls and screams with punk rock fury: "You bore me, you bore me to death/ You deplore me, and I don’t give a shit." There's plenty of anger in a track which finds the agitated singer extend the middle finger to, pretty much, everyone. "I do suppose 'Yuk Foo' is our most angry song to date. I was reading a book about the American hardcore scene and was inspired to write something short fast and heavy," she says before adding that there was a practical and purgative side to it too. "I enjoy playing the heavier stuff live so I was eager to write more stuff in that vein but once I'd written that, I kind of satisfied my itch and moved on."
But can you blame her for being angry and agitated? Especially in the aftermath of two seismic events in 2016: Brexit and the election of Trump? It is hard for music (or art even) not to be political in the current climate and it has resulted in a resurgence of more punk-soaked protest music around the world. In the run-up to last year's UK general election, Wolf Alice became vocal supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party with Rowsell hailing them as “the biggest indie band in the world.” The front-woman even appeared in a video posted on Corbyn’s Twitter account encouraging young followers to vote Labour. However, she says she finds it hard to infuse her lyrics with political commentary. "I have tried but thus far it isn't something that comes naturally to me which isn't to say I don't care," she sternly emphasises.
Wolf Alice roped in American producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen — who has been a longtime collaborator of Beck and also produced Paramore's most recent album, After Laughter — to record Visions of a Life. And his influence is telling. After Laughter saw Paramore hide all their usual angst and despair under bubbly synthesisers, reggae-influenced guitars and sugary hooks. Even if not all twelve tracks on Wolf Alice's LP are saturated with a similar synth-pop sound, one of the album's best tracks has an enchanting dose of it — 'Don’t Delete The Kisses,' a dizzy love song delivered in a stream of consciousness-style by a seemingly lovesick Rowsell. "He definitely likes synths and knows a lot about them. But he also loves raw guitar music. We were afforded a lot more time in the studio for this album which meant we could experiment with synths a little bit more," she says of Meldal-Johnson's influence.
Of course, the synth pop and jangly guitar flourishes — reminiscent of the 80s — are not just restricted to indie outfits like Wolf Alice. Bleachers' Jack Antonoff has been leaving his own unique footprint in many of the recent pop albums he's produced, including Lorde's Melodrama and St. Vincent's Masseduction. Even Carly Rae Jepsen's last record, E•MO•TION, was deep into synth-pop worship. And when you ask Rowsell what she thinks about this '80s pop revivalism, she gladly says, "I like it! It does feel special when you find a really interesting and cool guitar record because I feel we are more spoilt for choice with synthy, pop music but I like both so I'm happy that it's trendy at the moment."
The '80s influences don't stop there. In the incredibly catchy 'Beautifully Unconventional', Rowsell says, "Lyrically, I imagined me and my mate Hannah in a Heathers-like film. Two outsiders taking on the world. I was romanticising my high school experience I suppose." The song combines her dulcet vocals with a funky bass-line but its only real fault is that it's just around two minutes long.
When you ask Rowsell if there are any tracks from Visions of a Life she particularly cherishes, she says, "I feel like 'Don't Delete The Kisses' will be my favourite in hindsight but I will treasure 'St. Purple and Green' because it's about my late grandma and I will also treasure 'After The Zero Hour' because I don't even know where it came from but it taught me a lot." Lately, she says she has really gotten into the new albums from fellow British rock outfits, Shame (Songs of Praise) and Hookworms (Microshift). "I have only just discovered Post Malone who I really like and I can't get enough of the song 'Something To Remember Me By' by The Horrors," she adds.
Wolf Alice have deservedly been nominated at the 2018 Brit Awards for best British Group. "It's pretty mad to see our name next to the Gorillaz. I hope we win though," says a hysterical but upbeat Rowsell. After the recent controversy with the #GrammysSoMale, Rowsell expresses similar concern about gender discrepancy at the Brit Awards: "I think it's a real shame that there aren't more women performing at the Brits. Young girls need role models if we want to see less of a disparity in gender amongst musicians and songwriters. And they have an opportunity for change that they don't seem to be making the most of unfortunately. I don't know if they'll rectify it but if they do, Wolf Alice are well up for performing."
The band will be performing in India for the first time ever — Mumbai on 14 February and Bangalore on 17 February — at the 2018 Backdoors Festival, which will also launch Amnesty International India's global campaign focusing on 'Online Violence Against Women'. "I am looking forward to meeting any fans we might have out here and I'm looking forward to working with Amnesty International," says Rowsell.
So, if you're looking for a heady mix of pop, folk and punk or if you're nostalgic about '80s synth-pop or '90s grunge, you know just where to be.