Interview: Ellie Rowsell and Joel Amey of Wolf Alice

Wolf Alice

Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell and drummer Joel Amey talk about the inspirations behind Wolf Alice’s debut album My Love Is Cool, what some of the different reactions they’ve come across thus far have been like, and why learning to follow your gut is important.

My Love Is Cool is your debut album and comes five years after the band first formed. How much has the band changed in those five years? How do you think that extended time period impacted how the record eventually turned out?

Joel Amey: The five years really stretches back to when it was just Ellie in her room. As the four of us, we’ve been together maybe nearly three years? Obviously, over those times we’ve gone through as big of changes as you can imagine. Tastes change. What you feel like you want to achieve with a song can change, etc.

I know nearly everything in my personal life has changed since then too, which has a huge impact on what you end up creating. I was very much a different person now as to what I was when I first came into the band, and I feel that it inevitably shaped what I wrote and how I played.

What’s it been like to see “Moaning Lisa Smile” catch on in the States? How would you compare your experiences between the U.K. and the U.S. so far?

Joel: It’s so exciting! We’re four weirdos from North London who spent a good two years playing everywhere, trying to get the fine folk of England to pay attention to us, so it’s blowing our minds that we’ve got the chance to do that over in the U.S.A. too.

The U.S. crowds are so, so, so much fun. People yell stuff, like good restaurants to check out, or just welcome you to the city DURING the breaks between songs. It’s how I imagine American football games to be, full of team spirit and chanting. A good crowd at a show in the U.S. can be like getting hit with a sledgehammer and totally elevates the vibe.

The reviews for My Love Is Cool have been almost universally positive, especially from the U.K. press. How much do you pay attention to things like that? Is it difficult to not be swayed or influenced by outside perspectives?

Joel: I’m not gonna lie and say I haven’t read reviews, cause I’ve read all the good ones and the bad ones. This is still so exciting to us that I can’t help but want to find out every little thing people are saying. We’ve had a million opinions laid on us from day one that we never let affect us or change us, so I don’t see that starting now. It’s fun to find the really scathing ones. We read them aloud in the van sometimes. You can’t take it all too seriously.

It seems like you’re always getting described as a “grunge band,” yet your music encompasses so much more than one simple descriptor. How important is it to always be trying to stretch your sound into different areas?

Joel: I think it’s important, as far that it’s true to ourselves. We never set out to be one thing, but we also never said, “Let’s try and do loads of styles all the time!!!” Cause that’s equally as contrived. We all listen to a lot of different things and it rather organically has an affect on what we enjoy making, even if it can seem a little alien from an outside perspective.

One of the best characteristics of My Love Is Cool is its unpredictability, which is a rare thing in music nowadays, even more so on a debut album. Were there any moments on the album where this posed a particular challenge? Were there tracks that certain members of the band felt more strongly about and had to fight to be included?

Joel: There were a couple of older songs that we always thought of including on the first record that we haven’t, but that’s kind of the way it goes, I think. We tried to focus on what excited us while recording, which kept our spirits high throughout.

What kind of music were you listening to during the writing/recording? Did you find yourself easily influenced by what you were listening to, or are you able to detach from that osmosis process?

Joel: I really can’t remember listening to other stuff that much while we recorded. It wasn’t a conscious thing. We’re all quite obsessive when we start something and I don’t think we had much space in our brains to let other people’s songs come in.

I think when you have a strong idea of what you want to do, influences can maybe sway you back to a safe position. We kind of sailed our own ship for that month in directions where we wanted to discover stuff for ourselves.

The title My Love Is Cool is alluded to on “Freazy,” which seems to be the most self-referential moment on the album: “You can hate us all you want but it don’t mean nothing at all/ You can join us if you think you’re wild/ You can join us if you’re a feral child/ Your love is cool.” Where did that song and message come from?

Joel: Musically, it’s a song that we’ve had for a long time and has lived in many different states. Eventually we just knew that we’d written a pop song and flung ourselves into it. There was one tour we did and for kicks we’d always check the Twitter comments after shows. They were always SO scathing, so it has an element of kickback against that. I like that our poppiest moment is also a bit of a call to arms.

Wolf Alice has a history with dark fairy tales, from the origination of the band name to songs on the new record like “Giant Peach.” What is it about those stories you find appealing? How do you go about repurposing them for the band?

Ellie Rowsell: “Giant Peach” isn’t really about Roald Dahl’s story. I just stole the name cause I wanted something that stood for “home” that wasn’t cliché or obvious. However, yes I do think dark fairytales are something that interests and inspires me, mainly cause they are just imaginative, poetical metaphors for everyday life lessons, which I like songs to be as well.

You’ve described your current lyric method as being stream of consciousness. How has your writing changed over the years and what has it been like trying to find your voice?

Ellie: I guess you run out of things to say about yourself, and if life stays the same for a while then there’s only so many ways you can alter your stream of consciousness to come up with something fresh. So I started to look at other people, other stories to inspire me, putting myself in situations I haven’t necessarily experienced.

Typically, you’ve done most of your writing in your bedroom in the past. What is that process generally like and do you see that continuing on the next record?

Joel: It’s probably going to change. We’re writing on the road, in soundchecks and stuff. It’s hard to tell, because we haven’t got there yet, but you write different songs depending on your surroundings. I’m quite excited to see what we come up with while in a Super 8 hotel room, or while driving across America or something.

Many of the songs you write wrestle with serious subject matters like depression, especially on the likes of “Silk” and “Soapy Water.” Is there a reason for this? Are you naturally drawn to explore darker territories?

Ellie: Yeah, I guess so. I feel like there is more to say and more ways of explaining darker and more down thoughts. I guess if I feel down I become more brooding, which makes songwriting easier and also quite therapeutic.

Do you view songwriting as a personal catharsis that allows you to work out and express thoughts you wouldn’t otherwise be able to?

Joel: I feel songwriting is as wonderful whether it’s directly from yourself or in a more third person view. I’ve probably said the most personal things about myself when writing from another perspective.

The idea of being tamed and imprisoned, versus being wild and free, seems to play a big role on the album as well. What about that dichotomy were you trying to communicate or come to terms with?

Ellie: I’m not sure, but maybe just the eventual freedom that comes with growing older, learning to live, to take risks, to be confident and more self-assured, and to follow your dreams.

Is there a specific idea or a feeling you would hope listeners take away from the album as a whole?

Joel: I think it might be wrong to dilute it with my own feelings, because an album can mean so much to so many so differently. I think we all hope for it to be loved the way we love our records, and for maybe someone listening at home to feel like picking up an instrument or starting a band.

You sing lead on “Swallowtail,” which is probably the quietest and most fragile-sounding song on the record until it opens up at the end. How did that come about? Do you foresee playing around more with the vocals in the future?

Joel: It was a fast punk song that I’d demoed at home that probably had the biggest transformation from where it started. We all like doing vocal stuff on recordings, and me and Ellie sing together quite a bit live. So unless everyone gets sick of my weird voice, then probably!

There’s a lot of vocal range across the album, which encompasses everything from whispers to primal screams. How would you describe your approach to vocals? How do you feel you’ve grown as a singer from when you first started out?

Joel: We always focus on vocals and how they can add some weird elements to songs. “Silk” was super fun. Ellie had a few characters that layered up into the paranoid voices. It’s quite easy to just focus on the instrumental of a song, but definitely one thing I really loved taking away from this album is how much fun we had thinking about vocal nuances and how it opened up weird vibes to tunes that I hadn’t felt before.

Recently, you’ve talked about wanting to be less concerned with chasing perfection and instead be more attuned to the moment. What do you think has led to that shift? How do you see it playing a role going forward?

Ellie: I think it’s just studio experience. I’m definitely still learning, and I don’t have much experience under my belt, but one thing I learnt is that you can’t always recreate the magic and charm that comes when you first write or record a song, which for us is normally shitty home demos. And that’s OK. You don’t need to rerecord it, or rewrite it if it feels right or was a natural step at the time. I guess we’ve learnt that from making mistakes in the studio.

What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned from working on My Love Is Cool that you will be able to take and apply to subsequent records?

Ellie: I’m not sure yet. I learnt to follow my gut. I think we all did. If something doesn’t feel right, it means it probably isn’t. You’ll beat yourself up if you never try to rectify that, so go with your gut even if that means causing a little bit of a mess at the time.

Unfortunately, there are not many female-fronted rock bands of note out there right now, and you yourself didn’t start playing rock until your late teens. Why do you feel like woman are so underrepresented in the genre? Is there something that can be done to change the tide?

Ellie: I don’t really know. I guess because a lot of the female artists in the media eye are pop stars, fashion and model crossovers, and that could be daunting for some girls who want to be a musician but don’t want to be like that.

Perhaps the media should turn more of an eye on women in music who are solely musicians and songwriters, and not focus on what they are wearing or who they are hanging out with but their music. I also think for whatever reason less girls play electric guitar and drums, so that should be encouraged more at school.

Being a young band with such a diverse debut, the future is wide open in terms of what type of career you could have and the paths you could travel along the way. How much thought have you given to what comes next? Where do you see the band progressing?

Joel: We’re going to keep writing, keep evolving like we always have. It’s only the beginning of My Love Is Cool, but I think there’s ideas always bubbling. Joff will no doubt have a sleeve full of riffs in the coming months for us to blast out. We look forward to catching everyone on our October tour!!!