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18 September 2018

Wolf Alice: “Musicians don’t have the energy left to be rivals anymore”

The rising stars on Jeremy Corbyn, Generation Y, and why they are happy to alienate right-wing fans. 

By Rohan Banerjee

Wolf Alice have received two nominations for the Mercury Prize, as well as one for the Grammy for Best Rock Performance in 2016. This, on the basis of two studio albums, suggests that they must be doing something right. And while award shortlists don’t always represent a complete selection of quality – Wolf Alice would agree that plenty of great artists get overlooked every year – the fact the four-piece tend to be included is, according to bassist Theo Ellis, an “encouraging” sign.

Two years ago, the band were nominated as the Brit Awards’ British Breakthrough Act, with a sound that lead singer Ellie Rowsell describes as “a bit too rock for pop, but a bit too pop for rock”. In February, they were nominated for the Brit Awards’ main British Group category, missing out to industry veterans Gorillaz. Ellis says: “It feels amazing to be nominated for awards like that, and to be considered alongside bands that we were listening to as kids is really cool. With the Mercury, the first time round it was possible to feel like we were living off the buzz of being a new band, but to think that people are still talking about us and considering our music later down the line, to still be part of those conversations, is great.” 

Originally formed as an acoustic duo in Rowsell and Joff Oddie in 2010, the band quickly expanded their line-up, recruiting from the north London music scene. They previously played as a support act for the Manic Street Preachers and Swim Deep. Ellis was added to the band in 2012, replacing former member and Rowsell’s childhood friend Sadie Cleary, who left to focus on her studies. Meanwhile, former drummer James DC, a friend of Odie’s, was replaced by Joel Amey, that same year. Now, it is Wolf Alice headlining, with acts supporting them.

Wolf Alice have been praised critically for their ability to appeal to headbangers and soft rock enthusiasts alike. “Space and Time”, from their second album, Visions of a Life, blends Rowsell’s dulcet vocals with crashing guitars yet doesn’t sound out of place.

As they steadily move into the mainstream, then, what do they make of fame and recognition? Amey insists that “music remains the priority” for the band, while any accolades accrued are a “happy side-effect, but definitely not what motivates us”. Rowsell says Wolf Alice “don’t really feel famous yet”, which she thinks, in part, can account for their early success. “If nothing infiltrates or influences your creative output,” she says, “then that’s what you want. If you get more attention that could lead to more scrutiny and more pressure to do things a certain way.” Ellis agrees. “We like where we’re at now, to be honest. That’s not to say that we don’t have aspirations to do bigger slots at bigger venues and so on, but we like the creative freedom that our current profile allows us.”

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Certainly, Wolf Alice are still some way off being stopped in the streets – this interview takes place inconspicuously in a north London pub – but the band don’t need paparazzi to acknowledge that they aren’t typical twenty-somethings in 2018. Guitarist Oddie says: “We understand that we’re in a privileged position. We’re able to do something that we want to be doing, as a lot of other people our age are struggling to find work.”

Though not especially political in their lyrics – rather, Rowsell says, the band want to focus on exploring “feelings and relationships” – it’s hard to argue that Wolf Alice haven’t nailed their colours to the mast in other ways. They performed at a “Tories Out” march in London last summer, leading the crowd into a rousing chorus of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”. Rowsell herself appeared in a campaign video for the Labour Party leader, encouraging people to register to vote.

So, what do Wolf Alice say to people who claim that musicians should stay in their lane, and leave politics to politicians? “That’s ridiculous,” Oddie replies, “because we’re meant to be living in a democracy. People should be free to say what they think, and as we’ve got a bigger platform now we want to use it.” Do they worry that being so outwardly left-wing might alienate any prospective right-wing listeners? Amey chips in: “Hopefully.”

The decision – “if you can call it that” – to be more open about the band’s politics, Rowsell says, “came from a disappointment with what was on offer from the mainstream media”. As Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership has been reported on, in Rowsell’s view at least, “unfairly and without balance”, she says that the band feel a “sort of responsibility” to use their platform to offer him support. “I think that it is disappointing that it has come to that,” she continues, “because it shouldn’t fall to musicians to have to do that. I think the vast majority of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies really strike a chord with young people today, but he’s up against it constantly. Now we are seeing more musicians, actors, comedians or whoever, speak out. They are presenting themselves as alternative figures that young people have to look to for representation of them and their views. I don’t think that we are peddling propaganda by any stretch, but we are open about our politics, and I think it’s important for young people, especially, to know that there are people who support them, even if the mainstream media outlets don’t seem to.”

Wolf Alice’s desire to show solidarity with Generation Y, they say, can be contextualised by their attitudes towards their contemporaries in the music industry. Asked about the competitive nature of the business, they insist that rivalries and public fallouts between artists are less common than they used to be, because this generation appreciates how tough times are for everyone. Amey explains: “I don’t think there’s as much room for competition these days. It’s so hard to be in a band and make money from music that people don’t have the energy left to be rivals. When you’re performing at a festival, you’re all so stoked that you’ve managed to get there that there is a mutual respect. Before, when more record deals were being signed, and more bands had big profiles and were all on a level playing field, then maybe you would think differently, and think fuck it, why not just slag off Blur? Now, I think bands appreciate that every artist has had to work so hard to claw themselves onto a stage.” The band say that they have no intention of pulling the ladder up behind them. Instead, they hope that the “youth-quake”, as Ellis terms Generation Y’s seeming socialist uprising, can continue to change attitudes across different industries.

Are Wolf Alice optimistic about the future then? Does Generation Y have a chance? Does Labour have a chance? Oddie says the left may have to play the long game. “One of the biggest chunks of Tory funding,” he points out, “comes from people’s wills.” Indeed, the Conservative Party received twice as much money last year – £1.7m – from the wills of dead supporters as it did from its living members. Rowsell jokes: “It’s like living in a zombie apocalypse at the moment, but it’s nothing like what you see in the movies, it’s just a load of zombie Tories.” Still, the band remain hopeful. “It’s tough, for sure, but it’s only a matter of time,” Ellis predicts, “until the Labour youth-quake pays off”. 

Wolf Alice’s second studio album, Visions of a Life, has been shortlisted for the 2018 Mercury Prize. The winner of the award will be announced in a ceremony at London’s Eventim Apollo on 20 September 2018.