This article originally appeared in issue Q377, October 2017.
Theo Ellis walks up to Seattle’s Sunset Tavern, pointing to his heart and shaking his head. “I just got tattooed in the stupidest place.” In a few hours, his band Wolf Alice will play the minuscule club, and his bass strap will feel like a lawnmower shearing the shamrock from his skin. Drummer Joel Amey escaped lightly with a new earring. “Any time we have free time, people panic and are like, ‘Gotta get something tattooed or pierced!’” he says.
Wolf Alice are three weeks into a tour of American dive bars. Their bus smells like it. A packet of ham, a sourdough loaf and a stolen toaster litter the living space, like a lingering threat to make a very stale sandwich. Their vintage spoils, including singer-guitarist Ellie Rowsell’s white cowboy boots, spill from paper bags. Seattle comes after the tour’s longest drive, a two-day leg from Denver punctuated by a visit to a waterpark for Rowsell’s 25th birthday. They pack in activities to stave off madness.
Things are more salubrious outside the bus: the gleaming galleon looks like a spaceship next to narrow Ballard Avenue’s boutiques. The Camden rock band are doing tiny venues to prepare for their UK tour, where they’ll play huge rooms for their second album, Visions Of A Life. It’s bolder on every level than their 2015 debut, My Love Is Cool – the only rule in recording was “make sure you don’t hold back,” Rowsell explains in a raucous Greek restaurant after soundcheck.
Wolf Alice toured for three years before releasing their Mercury-nominated debut. It taught them how to be a band in both the musical and traditional sense – they found their sound, and earned a reputation as party animals. They’re obsessed with rock’n’roll lore, like California punk icons The Germs and their late frontman, Darby Crash, who intentionally overdosed on heroin, age 22.
“Wanting to be a martyr,” Ellis says in bewildered awe.
“And it was the day before John Lennon got assassinated, so no one spoke about it,” adds Rowsell.
But Wolf Alice are taking this small tour easy “for a few reasons,” says Ellis, including his recent diagnosis with type 2 diabetes. If My Love Is Cool was Wolf Alice’s coming-of-age album, Visions Of A Life is them “adapting to age,” says Rowsell, and its anxieties – like time slipping through their fingers. That is not the sexiest sell. But their nuanced soul-searching is balanced by the album’s monstrousness.
A woman faints within minutes of tonight’s gig starting. On new single Yuk Foo, Rowsell shrieks, “FUCK THE WORLD AND YOU AND YOU AND YOU” like Veruca Salt fronting Steve Albini’s beastly Big Black. Moaning Lisa Smile plunders the fetid nastiness of PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, and they walk off leaving feedback to groan and stutter. These are all-ages shows, bringing security guards to bars that usually host placid blues bands. “They look baffled, like, ‘People are actually having fun?’” says Amey.
Wolf Alice are a gang, but they didn’t know each other before the band. Rowsell found guitarist Joff Oddie through an ad, and Amey and Ellis joined later. They’re a welcoming bunch, Amey deadpan, Rowsell quiet but enjoyably dry. Ellis says Oddie is solely dedicated to mastering fingerpicked guitar and smoking cigarettes. Rowsell says Ellis sleeps with his eyes open and his bunk curtain pulled back, “like he can’t bear not to have one last conversation. “Somehow it worked,” she says. “Maybe it’s because we didn’t grow up around each other since we were 12, so we got to know each other. Sometimes that’s more valuable.”
They supported each other through the mania of their debut. “Touring 24/7 never really gave us the chance to lap [success] up,” says Rowsell. When they found out that Moaning Lisa Smile had been nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, “We were in bumfuck nowhere sharing a hotel room, and we had to wake up at 7am to go and drive to a second bumfuck nowhere.”
Still, their lives changed completely. “It becomes difficult to determine whether you’re feeling fuckin’ emotionally unstable because you’re becoming a 23-year-old adult or you’re in a different city every day and you’re pretty strung-out and tired,” says Ellis.
Amey and Oddie are 26, Ellis and Rowsell 25. “Is it not true that life moves quicker in your early 20s?” Rowsell asks. “I definitely had a bit of crisis when I stopped touring,” says Ellis. “We did 147 shows in a year. By the end of it you’re like, ‘I haven’t got a girlfriend any more, I dunno
if any of my friends like me, and I’ve got a stoopid fucking haircut.’” He stops, appalled to hear himself whine about touring. “It’s not bad. But it definitely can be tricky.”
Back in London they found themselves writing quickly. They only went to LA because they wanted to work with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, admiring his productions for The Raveonettes and M83. “We like rock, indie, punk,” says Rowsell. “But we also love highly polished production – how do you make guitar music sound like a massive pop song without it becoming too sheeny?” Worried that going to LA will be seen as a cliché of rock excess, they stress their work ethic, recording six days a week for three months, though they got evicted from their rental home when a friend accidentally put a brick through their window.
This time, they were more fearless as writers. “Knowing that bravery is better,” says Oddie. “It gets a positive reaction among us.” An attack like Yuk Foo would once have scared them, but this time it was a breakthrough. “It’s knowing no one’s gonna judge [Rowsell] for singing, ‘I wanna fuck all the people I meet,’” Oddie continues.
“Well,” she says. “It’s being sure in yourself that no one has a right to judge you.” Written in an Ohio hotel room, it’s about expectations of her as a woman in a band, in society, as someone’s girlfriend, “a musical manifestation of an outburst of rage,” she laughs.
Visions… is a big, brawny rock album, and Wolf Alice want it to take them “as far as no artistic compromise will get you,” says Oddie. They want to be headlining festivals alongside their peers, shoving the heritage acts from their comfortable perches.
Tonight it takes them as far as the local Irish joint. Among Ellis’s tattoos is a wonky black rectangle on his right forearm. It looks like an unfinished Black Flag tribute. It’s actually a pint of Guinness, which glows “like Harry Potter’s fuckin’ scar” as they approach the pub.
Last time they were in Seattle, a fan got arrested for shitting behind a bar. Bus call is at midnight to make an early radio session in Portland, so they’re having a quiet one. But trouble follows them. They’ve assumed responsibility for a friend who’s so wrecked she pukes on
the floor, then staggers outside demanding a margarita. Rowsell and Ellis bring water. They ring her dad, call her a taxi and take down the licence plate number in case. They call it a night. On the bus, Amey rues the state of his bunk. “I have too many keyboards in my bed. And five hats.”
Portland stinks of hot piss. The stench swamps a car park opposite the Star Theater, where fans have been queuing since 9am. Two Vancouver teenagers on their first road trip have brought roses. Outside the bus, Ellis, topless, polishes his DMs, listening to The Germs on his phone. Mastering domestic tasks on tour is important to his sense of routine.
The radio session was weird, Rowsell says – the host assumed she was Alice and the boys were her session musicians. She’s growing out a mullet that she got in LA and “instantly regretted”, though it suits her intense face. Onstage, she looks like she’d burn down your house, drawing power from the quiet moments in her performance as much as the fury. One to one, she’s clearly uncomfortable. Performing comes more easily than small talk, she says, hugging a cushion and twisting a scrap of ribbon in the back of the bus. Her dad would video their early shows, which she studied: “The only time I would ever cringe was if I really didn’t think I was being myself.”
She’s cagey about the personal experiences behind the record. The gauzy epic St Purple And Green is about losing her gran to dementia; chiming opener Heavenward a tribute to a late friend. On Planet Hunter, she alludes to leaving her “mind behind in 2015.” She explains, vaguely, that it’s about adapting to adult responsibilities and no longer being able to blame awkwardness on being a teenager. “You’re like, ‘Damn, I’m an adult and I still feel like this!’”
She squirms with pride and discomfort when she says, “There’s something sexual” about After The Zero Hour, a dissonant, vocal-stacked outlier. “It’s about a next step, breaking through one feeling and into another,” she says, then clams up until a comparison with Lorde’s Writer In The Dark piques her interest. “I really like her album because she’s broken up with her boyfriend and realised it was great. Sometimes there’s a bad association with writing break-up songs, but when I listen to that album, I think it’s important.”
She won’t reveal whether Visions is about a break-up, but she relates to Lorde’s post-split euphoria. “It’s this age,” she says. “People go through break-ups in their early 20s because you’re changing and you can’t keep up with another person. These feelings would probably happen anyway, regardless of coming in and out of a relationship. Like, ‘I’ve got to cling on to being young and having fun, and getting as many experiences as I can. What am I going to think and write about when I’m older if this is supposed to be the funnest time of my life?’”
The tour manager knocks and says it’s time for photos. The band do individual portraits against the Star Theater’s mangy velvet curtains, Oddie and Ellis vamping expertly. Q’s photographer asks Rowsell to put her tortoiseshell sunglasses on. “Inside?!” she baulks, and shakes her head.
The band follow the photographer to a nearby antique shop, past dozens of rough sleepers. “How does the world’s biggest superpower have so many homeless people?” Oddie shakes his head. “The holes in the net are so big.” Wolf Alice have become activists. Last December, they organised Bands 4 Refugees, a series of charity concerts where they performed covers alongside mates including Swim Deep, Years & Years, Slaves and Peace. Rowsell fronted a Labour campaign video urging young people to vote. They played the Tories Out march in July. They’ve always been engaged, says Ellis, but maturity and national unrest – and witnessing this kind of poverty – inspired them to use their platform seriously.
Bands often say they don’t want to speak out because they’re scared of making mistakes. Wolf Alice see it as a chance to learn, to reclaim politics for the people rather than intellectuals. “I think anyone that claims to know what they’re saying doesn’t fucking know what they’re talking about a lot of the time,” says Oddie back on the bus. “If that’s the reason you don’t wanna help, then that’s gonna stay that way for a long time, if not forever,” says Rowsell.
Ever-wary of seeming dogmatic, she says bands have an opportunity to speak out, rather than a responsibility. Lily Allen, Akala, Years & Years’ Olly Alexander and Owen Jones inform her social awareness, so she knows Wolf Alice might inspire others. “I’ve always been scared of politics because if you have an inkling something’s wrong but no one’s talking about it, you can be easily convinced you’re wrong,” she says, “so there’s strength in numbers: multiple artists coming together to stress what should be obvious.”
They say their generation distrusts traditional media, especially the left’s dismissive attitude towards Jeremy Corbyn and his youth cult. “It’s togetherness,” says Oddie of the giddy phenomenon. “The left hasn’t been properly represented in years, so it’s a big thing that the left has a fucking voice again, and a real chance.”
They start shouting over each other in excitement.
“It’s so easy to be critical of people who are outwardly positive instead of trying to make a change,” says Amey.
“You had your go, it’s called New Labour, it didn’t work!” Oddie adds.
“That’s why it’s so good to get other people to be proud about it as well, so if we’re all going, ‘D’oh!’ at least we’re doing it together,” Rowsell shrugs happily.
Hours before the Portland gig, the band are climbing the walls. The tour ends in two days. The fans’ roses are wilting. The bread is still out. Rowsell messes her sleek mullet until it explodes sideways. “I like it not slicked back,” says Ellis, which makes her flatten it. Paired with the cowboy boots, she thinks “it’s too throwback.”
Tonight’s venue is big enough for fans to mosh properly. The band feared that the new album’s title track was too indulgent – a mini suite that goes from shredding to baroque metal and gothic chants – but the response is immediate. Afterwards, Ellis’s only regret is his undone white silk shirt.
“It was so cock rock!” he says, appalled. “What am I, in Van Halen? Playing bass as well, what a wanker.”
“Why does that make it worse?!” Rowsell asks.
“Cos it’s not as hard as the guitar!”
They head to another Irish pub for a nightcap. A traditional band are playing, and the four thump their glasses against the table and cheer. Wolf Alice are anxious to slow time and make these experiences last. Before they know it, the Visions Of A Life era will be over. Rather than live fast, die young, they’ve figured out the only way to deal with the future’s swift onset is to try to make it a better place.