INTERVIEW: Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice on the band’s big break and touring in America

Wolf Alice

Wolf Alice, courtesy.

How does a band known for its grungy riffs get its start as a folk duo? In the case of London quartet Wolf Alice, it’s out of necessity.

Wolf Alice, Gateway Drugs
8 p.m., May 14
The Independent (21+)
Tickets: $15.

In 2010, vocalist Ellie Rowsell and guitarist Joff Oddie had only each other, playing coffee houses and pubs in their stomping grounds of North London.

“We didn’t have any electric guitars, or any amps. No drummers or bassists,” Rowsell said in a phone chat last week, while the band was on its way to St. Paul, Minnesota, plowing through its first American headlining tour. Thousands of miles and several shows later, San Francisco follows, with a show at The Independent on Thursday. “It’s when we tried to take it more serious – ‘Why don’t we…call ourselves a band?’ – that we played more ‘band’ music. We wanted to play loud so that maybe people would take notice a bit more.”

Wolf Alice’s sound – the one with which they’re now making waves – is most certainly a multi-hyphenate. It can be implied to be “alt-rock” or “guitar rock,” but it’s more accurate to mention the hard-driving grunge of “Giant Peach,” as well as the more rattling, melodious “Lisbon.” There are various other elements, like pop, punk, shoegaze, and hip hop production techniques.

Many of those elements were made possible by the addition, in 2012, of bassist Theo Ellis and Joel Amey on drums. Amey had never drummed live prior to joining. Instead, he sang in a different band, came to a few of Rowsell and Oddie’s shows, and was in the right place at the right time.

“We needed someone to play drums for this tiny festival we have in England,” Rowsell said. “And we didn’t actually know any drummers who weren’t already involved in other projects. (Amey) had one of those practice kits at home.”

In 2013, Wolf Alice self-released its first EP, Blush. The DIY aesthetic to putting together a band and making music helped the band early on, but Rowsell and Co. decided it wasn’t going to put them in the best position to succeed. They signed with Dirty Hit Records, which released a second EP, Creature Songs, last year. Then they began work on a debut album, called My Love Is Cool, which will finally be released next month.

Rowsell said the band simply wasn’t ready to write and record an album prior to   being signed and having proper studio time. The financial and time demands (the band members previously had day jobs) prevented it.

“It just wouldn’t have been very good, to put it bluntly,” she said. “It’s about finding the time, finding the right people to work with, producer-wise, renting a studio, and (being) able to have a selection of songs. Some people write 10 songs and then start a band. We started a band and then wrote some songs.”

Q&A with Wolf Aice

What did each of you do before this band?

Ellie: Roswell: I was working in a denim repair shop. It was part of Nudie Jeans; a Swedish company. It’s not something I’d really wanted to do, but I had a good manager there who let me go off and do tours, two weeks at a time. That’s important when you’re trying to be in a band. (Guitarist) Joff (Oddie) was at university for a while, doing a teaching degree. The other two boys (drummer Joel Amey and bassist Theo Ellis) were in other bands, playing different kinds of music. 

Has touring in the United States been everything you thought it would be? I know it’s been a big dream of yours. Is it still?

Oh yeah. And I’m still exploring it and finding new things every day. There’s so much ground to cover here. I think it will take many, many years to even get remotely bored of it. American crowds are quite different to English crowds. They’re very excitable. The only thing is the food. I’m still getting used to that. I’m slowly becoming a vegetarian over here. There’s a lot of meat over here.

Every once in a while, the band’s songwriting process begins an aim to write something hard, something poppy or something folk-based. But usually, the band’s musical diversity is organic, with songs evolving through the creative, or trial and error, process.

“If it evolves into a grunge song, cool. If it evolves into a pop song, fine,” Rowsell said. “If it comes out completely opposite of what I intended, I’ll let the song write itself.”

The influences can come from traditional fare, as well as film scenes or book passages. The latter shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who know that the name Wolf Alice was culled from an Angela Carter short story.

Rowsell likes to instill each song with its own character, and treats each as the soundtrack to a story being told.

The musical and lyrical change of pace have not hurt Wolf Alice’s rise, with fans jumping onto the bandwagon through grunge, pop, traditional ballad and other categories. It’s all alt-rock, after all.

“We don’t really change genre; we just change dynamic,” she said. “We’re not angry all the time and always want to make angry songs. We’re not sad all the time.,,,Like most normal people, there’s different mood swings. It’s not crazy different.”

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