Wolf Alice: “Jamie xx or SOAK might win the Mercury”

The unlikely breakout band talk Jeremy Corbyn, album number two, and getting shortlisted for the biggest prize in British music

Image: RCA Records

Image: RCA Records

In a dingy bar backstage at the Manchester Albert Hall, I jump in feet first: now with some distance from the release of their debut album, do Wolf Alice have any regrets? Joel and Theo, drummer and bassist respectively, take a moment before answering at the same time.


Another beat of silence. I push a little further – are there no choices that, in hindsight, were overworked?  No lyrics that tease out a cringy twitch four months on? They shrug and shake their heads. “I have so many personal regrets with my life choices,” Theo quips.  “But I love all our songs.”

They aren’t being arrogant. They don’t even come across as solidly confident, in light of the year they’ve had. Wolf Alice are probably the biggest breakout name of 2015, the derivative radio pawns James Bay and Years & Years notwithstanding. What is more startling is that, for a time, they could have gone either way – their particular brand of left-field grunge rock could quite easily have been shunted onto that bonfire of indie-filler bands disintegrating atop an NME kindling. Instead, they’re a Radio 1 golden child, already an iconic festival band, and now, a Mercury Prize shortlisted name.

Their refusal to compromise, paradoxically, is what saw them through. Their inability to regret any of their artistic decisions is because they were just that – not strategic, nor chart-conscious, but simply artistic.

“There were definitely times where we thought that we could put out a double album,” Joel says, in his intelligent, inexorably reasonable London drawl. The effect is ruined slightly by a boisterously self-assured drummer’s energy that has him bouncing around the room and throwing things like anyone else might bite their nails. He explains that My Love Is Cool was released far later than planned not because a lack of creativity, but because of “boring reasons, and also because of our own self-preparation.”

“We didn’t think any of these shows would sell out on this tour,” says Theo, steadier than Joel and fox-like. “The whole year’s been like an amalgamation of loads of really cool stuff – playing Reading, Glastonbury – which has culminated in this album tour. And then the eventual demise as a band starts tomorrow.”

There’s a fucking shitload of new bands who could probably all headline festivals

There’ll be no such luck on that score, but Theo’s deadpan joke raises the interesting issue of just how long the band have been playing the songs on their critically and commercially acclaimed debut. Fan favourites ‘Fluffy’, ‘Bros’ and ‘Your Loves Whore’ have been doing the rounds at live shows since early 2013, and went through a number of iterations before winding up in finished form on My Love Is Cool. The crowds don’t seem to mind – later in the day Manchester Albert Hall thunders with the satisfied footfall of 2,000 indie boppers – but weren’t Wolf Alice itching to evolve creatively and artistically and begin the next thing before the debut was even finished?

Joel nods. “We were always thinking ahead of the game, definitely, and even now – like, without wanting to be quoted or whatever, we’re not starting a second album as we speak. We’ve definitely all been writing ideas and we’ve got demos flying around, but we’re not like ‘let’s switch on and write a session now’. It’s just an ongoing thing.

“All four of us write individually all the time, so it would be weirder for us not to be writing than for us to always be writing.”

Joel explains that ‘She’ is an example of a song that the band “fell out of love with and then in love with again”, which perhaps explains how they’ve come to keep things fresh. He also says that he watches the band’s festival sets back to see how strongly they perform, and noticed while reviewing Reading that the song is definitely “a key example of an old song that kind of grows with us”. It’s hard to picture this seemingly irrepressible, carefree band sitting down to do a progress report, though it is perhaps symptomatic of a young group of creatives still finding their feet and defining their sound through playing live, rather than in a studio or around a label’s conference room table.

I ask Joel and Theo whether or not they watched their recent Radio 1 Live Lounge performance back, and what they thought of some of the less than fond reaction to their cover of One Direction from some genre-purist fans. “We’re obviously aware that if you go cover One Direction on the Radio there will be some purist out there who’ll be thinking, ‘What?’,” says Joel dispassionately. “And there’s probably about 48 billion people who like One Direction who are thinking ‘that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard’. But this wasn’t like us saying ‘this is the new sound of Wolf Alice’ or whatever, and I have no shame in saying that if you enjoy music then ‘Steal My Girl’ by One Direction is a pretty massive, powerful pop song as far as I’m concerned. Awful lyrics though.”

As of the 16th October however, Wolf Alice can play whatever and wherever they like in the face of any naysayers – they now have that coveted verified tick that is a Mercury Prize shortlist spot. Effectively the only remaining national UK music prize with any kind of weight or legitimacy to it, the Mercury, as Theo puts it, “isn’t based on fucking who said what in this magazine, and how many sales you made – you have a panel of respected judges who listen to the albums.” It’s a definitive accolade that, despite accusations by its critics of irrelevance and increasing obscurity, confers a seal of absolute recognition from an irrevocably picky stratum of musos.

Swim Deep’s new record is honestly incredible. It’s so unusual for a British band to come up with something so thoughtful.

“I don’t think we will win it,” Theo says frankly. “I reckon Jamie xx might win it, or SOAK.”

Joel cuts in. “Yeah, I think SOAK’s got a shot. I honestly think that an album that deserves it – and this is gonna sound like bias because we’re friends with them – but Swim Deep’s new record is honestly incredible. It’s so unusual for a British band to come up with something so thoughtful. It’s something I’d expect from the likes of Tame Impala or something, and I think it’s a shame they didn’t get it out in time for Mercury because it’s a record that is more than deserving of that accolade.”

Our chat descends into freeform chaos after every other question, as Theo and Joel bicker with a brotherly affection; we go from the finer points of Swim Deep’s music within its sub genre to whether Nick Cave will headline a UK festival, to stories of drinking with Slaves back home in London within a matter of seconds. I give up on the questions as we turn to debating the present state of festival headliners.

“There’s a fucking shitload of new bands who could probably all headline festivals,” Theo says with a brilliantly blunt exasperation. “I’m not necessarily saying Glastonbury. But if this year is, again, a remembrance to watching Metallica at fucking Reading for the twenty thousandth time it will be so boring. It’s so boring watching acts that have headlined festivals more than three times.”

“Even they’re bored,” Joel interjects.

“And there are these bands that have got three or four albums under their belt and they’re younger than fifty thousand years old,” Theo continues. “And I really hope that this year, when there seems to be a lot of bands getting to that point of maturity, that everyone pulls their finger out and books them, because otherwise it’s going to be shit.”

“Since people’s taste changes so much, you could have someone like Drake headlining a festival or something like that,” says Joel. “It doesn’t have to be like ‘well that one’s got to be at Wireless and this one at Reading’. They’ll have to start blurring the lines because people’s tastes have spread out far more than I think a lot of people realise. And if The Maccabees are selling out three Brixtons and Foals are selling out three Ally Pallys then there’s obviously a thirst for it. It seems silly to have them lower down the bill behind a band that just happens to have been around for a while.”

The breakout bands of which Theo and Joel speak – The Maccabees, Florence, Foals – all flourished as bands and artists while living in London’s live music bubble, and have all spent the last ten years amassing enough music and fans to make a concerted assault on the tops of festival bills.  London-based Wolf Alice too are already being tipped as future festival starlets. Yet the phenomenon raises an important question about the social cleansing of the area, a question thrown into sharp relief by The Maccabees’ most recent album about fighting the losing battle to save the cultural heart of Elephant and Castle. As musicians who have fought through the ranks of London’s band scene while trying to make a living in an increasingly impossible city, do Wolf Alice agree that they could well be the last of their kind?

Joel and Theo look a touch surprised to be confronted with this question, but jump to answer. “Unless the Government changes though,” says Theo. “Jeremy Corbyn says he wants to stop the social cleansing of London and if that does happen –”

Joel cuts him off. “- And he wants to give money to the arts, because the thing that a lot of people don’t realise is, the reason you pick up a guitar is because you might not feel so good about something, or you have a point to make. And if you decide to suppress that or eradicate it from a whole generation of kids who are coming up, you lose more than just culture – you lose people’s mental welfare.”

“Also the thing is it’s not necessarily true because there’s a shitload of rich kids in bands,” says Theo.

“Not that that matters, we’re not classist -” Joel sharply interjects again.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that, no.” Theo thinks for a moment. The pair’s boyish energy has all but vanished. “But being in a band isn’t determined by a class system, so there probably will always be bands in London. Everywhere has a cultural hub.  Also it’s not necessarily people born there; people migrate to London and end up being labelled a London band.”

Yeah, most bands you’ll find who come out of London probably aren’t Londoners,” agrees Joel. “They’re people who’ve found the city and it’s found a place for them. I always think it’s interesting that London gets all the bits and bobs. The mongrel bands. And that’s what makes it amazing as well. That’s what makes it so unique.”

The mongrel bands. It captures Wolf Alice perfectly, who in turn perfectly capture our times. The simmering frustration of My Love Is Cool, on some songs bottled, on others shaken up, and on others so ferociously released, makes sense when you meet the fun yet fractious youth at the heart of the band. Theo and Joel, and with them Ellie and Joff, are today’s generation – a mish mash of different breeds lost on the streets. Their music, teeth bared and full of fight, is a place to take shelter.