Three years ago, Wolf Alice lead vocalist/guitarist Ellie Rowsell asked her little brother to get his friends to follow the band on Twitter. It seemed like a simple enough request, but one of the friends wouldn’t oblige, explaining that Wolf Alice’s Twitter page was embarrassing because it had no followers. “What a vicious cycle,” Rowsell wrote on Facebook at the time. “I thought 25 was a lot but apparently it’s not.”
Flash forward to May 18, 2015. It’s 6:20 p.m., and Wolf Alice has just finished soundchecking for its sold-out headlining show at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles. The four members of the North London alt-rock band—Rowsell, lead guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis, and drummer Joel Amey—exit through one of the club’s side doors and make their way onto the sidewalk of Sunset Blvd., where they are greeted by a group of fans lined up for the show.
“That’s the most mental thing,” Oddie says minutes later, relating the band’s rise from obscurity to the pre-show excitement outside the club.
“Especially in the States,” Ellis adds.
Wolf Alice solidified its current lineup in the fall of 2012 and since then has released a series of singles and EPs that have been warmly reviewed in the press. According to Hype Machine data, Wolf Alice was the most blogged-about UK artist of 2013. But following the release of their Blush EP that November, the band decided to focus more on rehearsing and building a repertoire of songs throughout 2014, as opposed to releasing every track once it was recorded.
“It’s been a slow and steady thing with us,” Ellis says. “The press was good, but that doesn’t reflect in the number of people going to shows. It usually just means that more bloggers are going to your shows.”
This month, Wolf Alice will release its debut LP, My Love Is Cool, a 13-track collection that contemporizes the sounds of ’90s genres such as grunge, shoegaze and Britpop by incorporating modern pop embellishments, linked together by Rowsell’s vocals, which alternate from delicate to sneering.
The raucous insult rocker, “You’re a Germ,” ends with a manic laugh by Rowsell, while “Bros,” an ode to childhood friendship, is spry and dreamy. Some of the titles are cryptic. In good humor, the band declines to elaborate on the meaning of “Freazy,” but Rowsell takes a shot with “Your Loves Whore”: “I say, ‘I let your love tease me/ Now I am your love’s whore,’ which just means I’m whoring off someone. I guess it means the same thing as addicted to love. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
The singer declares that My Love Is Cool has no theme or concept. “It’s a greatest hits album,” she says, laughing.
“We did this interview a while ago,” Oddie recalls, “and Ellie said it’s a classic first album in that it’s all the best songs that we have. But the tagline was, ‘It’s a classic first album.’ Like it’s our opinion.”
Rowsell’s music career began auspiciously, when she won the Holloway Arts Festival’s 2010 Female Singer-Songwriter Competition.
“It was a community songwriting competition in the area I’m from in London,” she explains. “I won because I was the only person who was actually from area. Everyone else was from Brighton or something. And I didn’t get my prize, so fuck them; 1,600 pounds worth of studio recording time, which they never gave me.”
Not confident with her musicianship moving forward, Rowsell sought a guitarist to perform with her. She found Oddie on an Internet forum with the help of her father.
“I put an ad on someone else’s advert with a link to me doing some bullshit acoustic guitar [noodling],” Oddie remembers, “and Ellie’s dad saw that link and clicked on that one.”
“I thought you were from Eastern Europe or something because your name was Joff,” Rowsell says with a laugh.
Oddie’s birth name is Jonathan, but when he was a baby, a toddler friend only could say Joffaman. Since then, he’s been called Joff. Oddie was raised in Cornwall and began playing his stepfather’s guitar around the age of 11. He moved to London to study at the University of Roehampton, a teacher training college, and connected with Rowsell shortly thereafter. Neither had been in bands prior.
Wolf Alice began as an acoustic act between Rowsell and Oddie, who was a fan of Willy Mason, among others. Their shows were so sparsely attended that they decided to change direction and add electric elements to their sound. Rowsell’s childhood friend, Sadie Cleary, played bass and sang harmonies. Oddie’s friend, James Day-Cocking, also from Cornwall, joined on drums, but he broke his wrist in 2012 and current drummer Amey, a temporary fill-in, eventually became a permanent replacement. Cleary, the friend immortalized in “Bros,” left the same year to focus on nursing school.
“They both went to university in different cities, so it was quite hard for them to keep up with [the band],” Rowsell explains.
The band initially sought a female bassist to replace Cleary, to preserve her vocal contributions, but they couldn’t find anyone suitable. Ellis, a friend of Amey since the age of 15, joined Wolf Alice on bass in late 2012.
Rowsell’s mother was helping her daughter pull books off the shelf in search of a band name when she came across Angela Carter’s short-fiction collection, The Bloody Chamber, which concludes with a story based on Little Red Riding Hood and Through the Looking-Glass, entitled “Wolf-Alice.” Rowsell had borrowed the book from her school’s library and never returned it.
Wolf Alice has looked to other artistic mediums to inspire the songwriting as well. “Heavenly Creatures,” from the band’s 2014 Creature Songs EP, takes its name from Peter Jackson’s 1994 film. “Silk,” a moody synthpop track on My Love Is Cool, is informed by an Edie Sedgwick biography. “Moaning Lisa Smile,” one of the grungier rockers on the album, is based on Lisa Simpson.
“If you write lots of songs, sometimes you run out of things to think about and say, things to feel,” Rowsell says. “So you have to go and take someone else’s story or write about a cheeseburger or something like that.”
“Something stupid like Lisa Simpson,” Amey adds.
As Wolf Alice is nearing the end of its set at The Roxy, the band members are feeding off the energy of sweaty fans bouncing up and down to the riff-heavy album track, “Giant Peach.” During the one encore song, “Moaning Lisa Smile,” Rowsell crouches down at the edge of the stage and stares down the crowd for a while before descending into the pit with her mic and guitar. The fans encircle her, singing along to the chorus while pogo-ing in unison. Rowsell won’t make it back to the stage. Amid the chaos, she abandons her mic and guitar to slip away to the backstage area, looking both spent and exhilarated. In that moment, the impetus for “Moaning Lisa Smile” seems far from stupid. It feels ordained.