On a day off in between gigs during a recent tour with Queens of the Stone Age, Ellie Rowsell put on a wedding dress and veil, then didn’t get married. She didn’t jilt someone at the altar either, come on now. As frontperson for Wolf Alice, she spent most of the day in Portland, Maine sprinting through a wooded area and along a high street and more remote road for a music video – that of “Space & Time,” from the indie band’s second album Visions of a Life.
But the average Portland resident wouldn’t have known there was a cameraperson on their way to meet Ellie, as she waited on the side of the road that afternoon. “Whilst I was hanging out on my own and waiting for the car to come around the corner, this other car pulled up,” she says, sitting on a sofa next to bandmate and guitarist Joff Oddie, months later in a London dressing room. “These two old ladies were like,” – *puts on high-pitched voice with an American accent* – “‘are you OK, dear?’ and I was like ‘I can’t find my husband.’ And they were like, ‘oh you poor thing, you want a lift?’ and I replied that I was gonna wait until he arrives.”
At this stage, Joff laughs, and Ellie giggles too, making a side-comment that, oh right, she hasn’t told him this story before. Anyway, she goes on. “It was mean of me to do that, but I was playing pretend.” She smiles. “They were really sweet.” When we meet, she and Joff are at west London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, where Wolf Alice are due to rehearse before travelling to play the Radio 1’s Biggest Weekender festival in Swansea. They’re not here to talk about festival season, though.
We’re catching the band at an interesting time. Visions of a Life came out last year, debuted at number 2 on the albums chart (just like their first album, 2015’s My Love Is Cool) and now they’re combining touring with dodging social media drama. Usually, when a band’s between albums like this, they play a few shows, maybe sync a song in an ad, then start gearing up for returning to the studio. But along with Shame, Portishead and Circa Waves, Wolf Alice have called for a boycott of Israeli goods, after reports of more than 50 Palestinians killed during one day of a weeks-long protest leading up to the opening of a new US embassy in Jerusalem (Israeli officials called the protest “violent riots”).
And, as always happens when they make a political statement, the ‘keep politics out of it, I’m gonna delete you off my iTunes!!’ brigade is out (as are those defending the band). This isn’t Wolf Alice’s first time taking a stand on a contentious issue, either. They’re one of a handful of British bands who you’ll as likely find playing a summer festival as an anti-austerity protest. And, just as their music wields loud-quiet dynamics – slipping from crashing cymbals and 90s alt-rock guitars to layers of breathy vocals over teasing basslines – they occupy several spaces at once. But we’ll come to that later.
First: this video, which Ellie directed. It rollicks along with a momentum that matches the track itself. “The song’s about being faced with an obstacle of sorts. And I often think of my future self looking back at my present self. Like, ‘OK, this is really bad right now, but hopefully one day I’ll be looking back and… you know, time would have healed at least a little bit. And I might even be laughing thinking about this.’” That usually helps her feel better, she says, so she wanted to introduce an element to the video that signalled to the viewer that her character had made a big decision. “But the audience could decide for themselves what that was. And, you know, as soon as you put on a wedding dress, you’ve got that, really.” Leaving a backdoor open to ambiguity means fans will no doubt develop their own readings of the video’s story. Ellie’s eyes perk up, as she talks about how much she loves reading people’s theories about the band’s lyrics or videos. Does that mean she scrolls through comments? How much do the band like to “be” online, I wonder?
“A lot, I think,” she says, her next words coming out in a slower stream than before. As she starts to inch closer to the elephant in the room – the band siding with Palestine via a tweet – her alto spoken voice gropes for the right words. “It’s just… just as anyone… I kind of… yeah, I think. We do it… we bother with it a lot cos it’s a way to interact with your fans. It’s a great way to get your opinions across in matters that aren’t in your music, necessarily. Whether that’s recommending a book you've enjoyed or asking for help or – segueing probably into your next question – political opinions.” She laughs, briefly. But she rounds off with a simple idea: “you’re more than your music. And that, too, has pros and cons.”
“It’s definitely a double-edged sword, isn’t it?” Joff offers. “You lose a lot of mystique online, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. There is a line, between maybe sharing too much and understanding that what people put on the internet all the time isn’t completely the truth.”
“Yeah,” Ellie adds. “Everyone’s always learning and evolving and changing.”
In the time since the Grammy-nominated band first came out, the nature of dialogue on social media has evolved. Ellie and Joff founded Wolf Alice as more of an acoustic duo, and by 2011 were sending off demos to BBC Introducing DJs when joined by bassist Sadie Cleary and drummer James BC. The current line-up, completed by bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey, came together in 2012. EPs Blush and Creature Songs came after their first UK tour in February 2013 (shouts to the original version of single “Fluffy” from that time), and award nominations and more hype followed. But remember Twitter in 2011 or 2012? When the band first got together, it was like a cross between a texting service (“@jennholder87 you going to that private view thing today babes? x”), a nascent breaking news source and a place where you could shout dumb shit into the abyss without going viral. The days of the US president’s unfiltered brain farts, of white supremacists and anti-semites spreading hate, of disappointing milkshake ducks (and amazing short-form teen comedians, to be fair) were just a twinkle in our collective eyes.
So, last week Wolf Alice tweeted this message – “As long as the Israeli government commits war crimes against the Palestinian people we support their call for a boycott of Israel as a means of peaceful protest against a brutal and bloody occupation. #ArtistsForPalestine” – into what feels like a much more hostile social network. “I mean, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of those areas of politics that is very polarising,” Joff says, “so you would expect to get that response. It’s very interesting to see both sides kicking off in the feed underneath our tweet – saying ‘I agree with this,’ or ‘maybe I don’t agree with this and want to find out a bit more’.” Ellie adds: “At the very least, it’s a conversation starter,” though clarifies that the band thought about taking that stance to do more than spark a debate.
“It was a conversation we’d been having for a long time – a year, a couple of years, off and on? – about whether we’d support a boycott,” Joff says, his voice a bit quieter. “But due to the recent events in east Jerusalem and Gaza we felt it was an important time to say that. We had a conversation; everyone in the band was on the same page.” Even violence, something that seems a clear violation of human rights, is muddied by the political tension inherently built into Israel-Palestine conflict, he continues. “For me, if you see things simplistically, the message we shared is fairly straightforward and innocuous, really. It’s not overly controversial. But it shows the level of spin and aggravation that’s a result of that conflict.”
After a pause, Ellie speaks again. “One of the main criticisms that people like to raise when you express any kind of political opinion is that you’re a hypocrite. That’s why I think it’s so hard for people to speak out on social media; it makes you feel bad, like” – she lowers her voice, mock-covering her mouth – “‘oh god, maybe I shouldn’t. But we’ll never get anywhere if we spend all our time making sure to tick every single box.” She should know: she appeared in a pre-election video for the UK’s Labour party in 2017, putting herself front and centre of ‘picking sides’ in a political issue along with the grime stars who did the same to try and galvanise the youth vote. We discuss how, at some point, you have to be able to take action about something knowing that, like every person on earth, you aren’t a perfect moral specimen. Trying to be completely virtuous before taking a stand would stop anyone from protesting anything.
“I think people should have a general idea of what’s going on in their country and where that fits into the global picture.” Joff says, leaning forward on the sofa. “As members of a democracy, I think that’s something we should do and engage with. But to what point, and where you draw the line, is another conversation, really.” And so the band continue to be vocal in several ways at once. You can see them as a sweet-sour rock group, as an openly political band, as a group of young people figuring out how much of themselves to share with their followers. Or, on a particular day, just as a band who’ve lost one member, as she runs around Maine in a wedding dress.
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