Leader of the Pack: Wolf Alice's Ellie Rowsell interviewed
As they prepare to release their debut album, Ellie Rowsell tells The Skinny why Wolf Alice have little time for indie pop convention
"We're not looking for instant success. With us, it's more slow-burning. We're taking small steps and that whole process will take – well, it will take as long it takes." Ellie Rowsell doesn’t do 'I want it all' posturing. The Wolf Alice frontwoman is resolutely modest and, against the headline-grabbing grain for young emerging pop stars, spends much of our interview thoughtfully considering her responses.
Seemingly devoid of ego, she's an unassuming presence, keen to focus on her craft rather than commerce and the industry. "It might take us ten years to get where we want to be," she continues. "We're not going to try to second-guess it. If I think about it too much…" She tails off. "I just want to enjoy myself. Too many bands at our stage seem to spend too long trying to work it all out and we don't want to make that mistake."
With their steadily growing profile set to take an upward turn in 2015, it's easy to forget that they've been around longer than many 'Where are they now?' victims of the unthinking taste-makers. Formed in 2010 by Rowsell and guitarist Joff Oddie, Wolf Alice (the name comes from an Angela Carter short story) self-released their eponymous debut EP that year, but it wasn't until drummer Joel Amey and bassist Theo Ellis joined in 2012 that they gave hint of their developing identity; an intense and wiry reworking of indie pop shapes with, as their increasingly forceful live shows began to confirm, more emphasis, ultimately, on rock than pop. A series of EPs followed, culminating in the well-received Creature Songs EP, released mid-2014.
"Some bands record their albums exactly how they want to play them live, but that's not us" – Ellie Rowsell
But it's their live reputation that has travelled the most, which is perhaps why Alt-J booked the quartet as support for their biggest show to date at London's cavernous O2 Arena. We speak as Rowsell breaks off from rehearsing for a gig that would send lesser acts racing for the comfort of your common Dog and Duck. "Mmm. It's a big deal, for sure. Yeah, I mean it's a support show so it doesn’t feel too scary," she says. "It's not our own show, sure, but it’s definitely going to be weird stepping into such a huge stage."
Their forthcoming UK tour will see them leap from the bars and clubs they've played seemingly non-stop for the past couple of years to the likes of Manchester's Ritz ("Oh, that place is huge – I hope we can fill it…") and London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. Still, Rowsell is unbowed: "We'll be fine. We can't wait, actually. It'll be good to show people just what we can do now as a live band."
If Wolf Alice do, as you suspect they will, catch a wave in early 2015, it could well be due as much to their seemingly sharp set of influences as that shortlisting on the BBC Music Sound of 2015 list (a curse, rather than a blessing, for a plethora of new acts in recent years). Older heads might draw a line back to the US alt. epoch and the early-90s underground crossover managed by the likes of Veruca Salt, Belly and The Breeders. Rowsell isn't so sure. "I don’t know if we do have that kind of sound," she says. "It's certainly not a conscious thing. I know Jon, our drummer – he's perhaps the biggest muso out of all of us – has been listening to lots of cool stuff since he was a kid. But for me, I listened to a lot of chart music, a lot of pop, until I was about 14."
We all do that, though, right? Pretend we listened to The Velvet Underground rather than Kylie when we were at primary school? "Absolutely! As a teenager, I started to listen to more, I don’t know, guitar-based stuff – Nirvana, Pixies, The White Stripes, The Strokes. But yeah, I think people sometimes pitch us as something that perhaps we're not. People will say to us 'Oh you must really like Belly…'" You really must. "Ha! Well, no. I don’t. Seriously, it must be a really unconsciousness thing, then, because I've never really heard them." A lazy comparison? "Maybe not. I definitely do like that kind of stuff but I think maybe that it might not be so applicable any more, certainly once our album has come out."
Briefly, we touch on another large-scale booking for the band – in August, they return to the Reading and Leeds Festival and it seems likely they'll benefit from elevated billing this year. Hopefully, they’ll make the main stage, where a dearth of female and female-fronted acts has suggested the promoters have a sorry agenda at worst and cloth ears at best. Rowsell gets the criticism but is wary of plumping for an equally imbalanced solution. "I do think that that kind of billing should be addressed," she agrees, "but I understand why it happens, I think. I mean, I don’t want to see a girl band, or a band with a girl in it, headline Reading just because of their sex. It's not necessarily the fault of the promoters. Ultimately, at a base level, there needs to be more girls picking up guitars – you know, forming bands, writing, and just being good at what they do. The last thing I want to see is a poor girl band just to fill out a quota, you know?"
We move on. There is an album all but complete and Rowsell speaks about it with a breathless enthusiasm. "We were ready, organised," she says. "The songs were about 95% complete when we went into the studio to record. And some of the songs were really quite old – perhaps three years old, so we had a breadth of material, you know; a set of songs that represented who we were from the very early days up to now. Some were very new – just a couple of months old. So, yeah, it's an interesting mix. I think you'll be able to tell which ones are old songs and which are new. I guess I'm still trying to grasp it myself but there's definitely two sides to the record. There are songs on it that maybe, if you've followed us from the start and you know our sound, or think you do, will surprise you.
"We gave a lot of thought to how we'd be able to play the songs live," she continues. "You know, originally we were very guitar-based and heavy but now we're kinda losing that. Right now we're just writing what comes naturally to us and not worrying about whether we can play it live because we don’t have a hundred keyboards or what have you. It's a much purer approach to the whole songwriting process, I think, and that will benefit the live show, too. The recording studio and the stage are two separate things but we're really learning to understand the differences, and without it compromising who we are."
With Wolf Alice daring to venture beyond the accepted constraints of trad Brit indie both musically and lyrically – "Lyrically, I'm still trying to find my feet to be honest. It's more like a stream of consciousness than a, um, Nick Cave narrative!" – the creative process must be increasingly fulfilling. "Yeah, it is, definitely. I find it immensely satisfying. I mean, I don't know if it's one of those things where I necessarily have to put it out there. I'm still not entirely sure you can be absolutely certain what, of your own stuff, is good and what is not so good. I mean, I have songs that I'm really proud of and some where I'm a bit more… mmm."
She pauses and laughs. Again, ego takes a hike: "Songs where I'm not so sure, to be honest. Once the album is out, well, I don't know – let's just see how it goes, I suppose. We’re just finishing the mixes now and we're definitely trying to keep cool about the whole thing. It's important, I think, not to have too many – well, not to have any, really – expectations. Certainly not until I've heard it myself!"