Fronted by the enigmatic Ellie Rowsell, the sharp songwriting and grunge-tinted rhythm of their first two albums catapulted Wolf Alice to the top of British guitar music.
Both their debut, My Love Is Cool, and its follow-up, Visions of a Life, were nominated for the Mercury Prize, winning for the latter. Their song ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ was even nominated for a Grammy Award.
It’s why on their third album, Blue Weekend, we witness a careful refinement rather than a huge overhaul – why change a winning formula? The songs sound like the work of a group of musicians whose chemistry and understanding has never been more assured, allowing them to undergo bold sonic choices, from the Riot Grrl passion of ‘Play The Greatest Hits’ to the melancholic swirl of ‘Feeling Myself’.
There’s always been a cinematic quality to Wolf Alice: their song ‘Silk’ was chosen to soundtrack a key scene in Trainspotting 2 and in 2016 they were followed by acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom as he made a docudrama capturing their existence on tour. And the fuller sound on Blue Weekend is full of triumphant widescreen moments, wholehearted in ambition and thrilling in scale.
Three albums in, there is no longer any semblance of Wolf Alice’s success being short-term; rather, it’s time that they’re rightfully cited as one of the U.K.’s most consistent and enthralling bands of this century, and one of the very few to unite both the commercial and critical masses.
Not that they’d care if there were any detractors anyway: as Rowsell sings in ‘Smile’, “I am what I am and I’m good at it / And you don’t like me, well that isn’t fucking relevant”. This is skilled and swaggering guitar music that knows its own worth.
Ahead of Blue Weekend’s release today, June 4th, we spoke with bassist Theo Ellis to discuss the album’s strange recording process, how much they’ve missed live gigs, and their evolution as a band.
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Listen to ‘Smile’:
How long has Blue Weekend been ready for?
We started recording it at the beginning of February 2020 I think – sorry I always get my timeline confused! For some reason because of coronavirus, I don’t know when anything’s happened.
Everyone’s the same way, yeah!
Yeah, it was definitely February 2020. We were about a month into recording when coronavirus happened and then we were locked in the studio for a further two months so the whole thing took about three months. We then came back to London and did another week in a studio in Clapton.
That must have been intense having to record during lockdown.
It was very intense. If you had told 15-year-old me that I was going to be locked in a music studio for three months, it would have sounded amazing but the reality is different. It’s really, really intense.
Where did the name Blue Weekend come from?
Ellie just said it in a cab! We were in a cab at this forest and Ellie turned to me and Joel and said ‘next Blue Weekend we should go to that forest’, and Joel instantly loved it. I remember there was this big skyline we could see from the cab and we could look up and see a big clear blue sky. I think it was the duality then of blue being sad and blue also symbolising good. It was broad and it was stark and I think when a title like that sticks, you shouldn’t challenge it too much.
So what’s changed between Visions of a Life and Blue Weekend then?
Sonically, this album’s not a massive departure. I can hear Wolf Alice in this album when I listen to it. I think it’s just the best version of us, I think we’re just more experienced in every respect. Everyone’s honed their specific skills more. We’ve got this mini-Avengers mentality between us now. I think that helps to realise the songs in their best form.
What was it like having Markus Dravs as a producer? How did he help bring you all together?
He was amazing, he had this innate ability to make you question everything you were doing and why you were doing it. What you were doing something for and how it affected the bigger picture of the album. It was really interesting to be challenged in that way.
Obviously Ellie’s songwriting is discussed a lot but how much collaboration is involved in it?
It’s a very collaborative process. Everything goes through the machine of the four of us working on it. Ellie’s songwriting is just the lynchpin of it all.
How do you think her songwriting has evolved?
I think she’s enamoured with human emotion and all the things that come with it and that can change shape. One thing she said this time was that she wasn’t shrouding feelings in ambiguity anymore which I found interesting. Songs like ‘Last Man on Earth’, when I heard the demo I was shocked at how amazing what she was creating was.
Listen to ‘Feeling Myself’:
The song that jumped out to me was ‘Smile’ because it seems to be about that discrimination you’ve perhaps had to deal with in the past, having a girl front the band. Do you think that’s gotten better recently?
I’m not going to speak for Ellie here but I don’t think she’s had it too bad in that sense. In terms of the wider picture of female representation though, female representation in rock bands, you can see that there’s huge amounts of work to be done.
And it’s not just about placing bands with girls on festival bills, it’s systemic. You go backstage and you don’t see many female crew, you don’t see many female lighting riggers, or whatever. It needs to change in terms of representation for people to be aspirational to get in those roles. Obviously that can start with people putting on gender-balanced festivals but it needs societal work as well. I like to think the conversation is helping to change it.
Speaking as the bassist, what’s your favourite song on the album to play? There are such varying speeds and styles throughout it.
Yeah, there really is you know (laughs). When I’m doing the guitar changes at the moment, I’m desperately trying to figure out what persona I’m supposed to be playing. I think ‘Smile’ would be my favourite song if I didn’t have to fucking concentrate so much. So I think ‘How Can I Make It Ok’ is my favourite, I really love playing the groove in that song.
The other song I wanted to ask about is ‘Play The Greatest Hits’ – that sounds like a Riot Grrrl revival.
Yeah! That’s a fun song, I love that song.
It’s always been hard to pin the band down into one genre. Do you prefer being fluid between genres? There’s hints of grunge and shoegaze throughout Blue Weekend.
I think it’s symptomatic of our generation. We don’t have that thing of just listening to one genre like people used to do. When you consume music like we do now, I think you start to create like this. You do whatever moves you and you shouldn’t be restricted. And we’re not making like dubstep or reggae, we’re making stuff that fits within a similar place.
I wanted to ask you about the current state of British guitar music. It’s much healthier than when you first started to come through as a band seven or eight years ago. Back then the media kept calling you one of the last great hopes of British rock music. How do you feel coming back into the picture now?
There are some great bands coming out just now. I think that the conversation that ‘rock is dead’ always happens and I don’t really know who starts it.
It seems to start every few years again and again.
Yeah! Everyone’s always talking about some sort of music being dead. They said it about grime for a while too. I think it’s a journalistic thing, they get obsessed with this idea that some type of music is done and is going to fade away into nothingness. I think if you look in the right places though, there’s always someone doing interesting stuff in a genre and pushing that genre forward.
I feel good about coming back into the picture. I think it’s actually weird for everyone because we’re all coming back into the picture at the same time because of coronavirus. Bands struggle without live music so I think everyone’s going to have to play some gigs.
When was the last time you played in Australia? Did you have a good experience?
Oh man, it was a few years ago but it was a good time.
I read you talk about Amyl and the Sniffers before, you’re fans of them?
Oh, I love that band. I’ve been to see them play a few times. I saw them play in Camden years ago now. They’re amazing.
Listen to ‘How Can I Make It OK?’:
You made a music video to accompany each song on Blue Weekend. Was that just your way of giving back to fans who normally would come and see you play live?
It was in the midst of the chaos of coronavirus when we really didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought we should figure out a way to communicate the album to fans and share the experience with them. We had the opportunity to make a music video because it was allowed so we decided to make 11 of them to the dismay of our director (laughs). Jordan Hemingway is his name and he’s an amazing director.
We made something that we’re all really proud of and it was a fun experience. I watched the film last night, all the videos are together in one longform film, and it was wicked. It was great to see songs that wouldn’t necessarily get a music video, songs that aren’t singles, get that treatment.
Obviously you missed live gigs and touring but did you feel like you needed a little break after touring so much for Visions of a Life?
We needed a little time to put our lives in order, you know. To figure ourselves out. We’d been on tour for a long time, basically for five to six years, making two albums and then touring them. You can get into a weird sort of arrested development.
The other live thing I wanted to ask about was your Glastonbury Livestream performance from a couple of weeks ago. Was that strange?
It was strange but it was really, really fun. It was a great experience and it was just amazing to be on that site. I feel really privileged to have got that opportunity.
What’s the plan for the rest of the year then? You’re on the bill at Reading & Leeds?
We’re playing Reading & Leeds, that’ll be good. We’ve got a tour planned but that’s for next year which is depressing because it’s so far away. But hopefully when things open up we’ll be able to play more and figure out how to get back doing what we love doing which is playing gigs everywhere.