You’ve got to hand it to scrappy British alt-rock quartet Wolf Alice. For its ambitious new third outing Blue Weekend—released today (June 4)— the band is launching a comprehensive promotional campaign that borders on sensory overload. Visually, the album will be available in both picture disc and transparent green vinyl editions, and—as a tactile bonus—a retro-hip purple cassette that fits in the palm of your hand. Additionally, on June 10 at Picture House Central in the band’s native London, a premiere is scheduled for its eponymous Blue Weekend film, helmed by celebrated Anatomy of Goth director Jordan Hemingway (“Pints and ciggies have literally never looked this good,” the Wolf Alice website promises), as is an actual subsequent live acoustic performance. For the full, floor-rattling electric experience, a lengthy October/November American tour just went on sale, so fans can see/hear/the quartet in their own concert-hungry metropolis.
And there’s a bonus for diehards desiring the full experience, reveals guitarist Joff Oddie, who first formed the group with vocalist/keyboardist/co-guitarist Ellie Rowsell as a folk-singing pub-circuit duo back in 2010: Order a special bottle of Blue Weekend Hair Dye, concocted by hip U.K. company Bleach, whose transformative-process tagline promises that “It might be sunny outside, but it’s still raining in your head.” “It’s just a bit of lighthearted fun,” Oddie snickers. “We’re really good friends with Bleach, the people that do the salon and the hair products, so we just thought this would be a nice, fun, kooky little idea.” And fun is often the motivating factor for Wolf Alice merchandise, adds Rowsell, whose hair has remained various shades of ash blonde since the band’s 2015 My Love is Cool debut, and its Grammy-nominated hit U.S. single “Moaning Lisa Smile.” “People used to come to our shows in glitter, because our first album had this glitter on the front cover,” she says. “So it’s always nice to do something like that for your fans.”
Such a carefully calibrated campaign would be just so much smoke and mirrors, of course, if the music lacked substance. But Blue Weekend—recorded in Belgium at Brussels’ IPC Studios with Coldplay/Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs—is a bold stylistic leap forward for Wolf Alice (which also includes bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey). It’s plush in all the right places (the orchestral power ballad “Delicious Times,” a sugary folk-popper called “Safe From Heartbreak,” and the Oasis-huge piano anthem “Last Man on Earth”), jagged where it needs to be (the metal-meets-hip-hop mashup “Smile,” a punk-brutal “Play the Greatest Hits”), and often sits colossus-like astride genres, a la the acoustic-electric, one-two punch of “Lipstick on the Glass,” which ricochets Rowsell’s often chorale-gorgeous voice into new Sun Session slapback territory. The outfit winning the 2018 Mercury Prize for its sophomore Visions of a Life was no fluke—the Oddie/Rowsell team is here to stay, a truth hammered home on them as they sheltered in pandemic place for the Brussels sessions. They spoke about the Blue Weekend process by phone from London this week.
Paste: In 2019, when you took six months off, what did you both do?
Ellie Rowsell: We came off tour, and I guess we had a little break, but not for very long, because we started thinking about, “Okay, do we have any new material?” Because even though we’d just come off tour, it had still been two years since we had released any new music. So I think we were pretty quick to jump straight back into band stuff, if you will—sharing demos, looking for a rehearsal room so we could flesh that out and start working on new stuff, really.
Paste: But Joff actually worked for a food trust during the break?
Joff Oddie: Yeah, I did a bit of volunteering, and I’ve kinda done that on and off ever since, really—volunteered down at a food bank in Camden. And I also did a couple of weeks down in Plymouth, volunteering for the Red Cross and their Family Reunion Service. And Family Reunion is something in the U.K. where, if you’re granted asylum from the government, you can apply to have your family come and join you.
Paste: How life-affirming was that?
Oddie: Ummm … mostly it was really difficult. I mean, the stories that these people have are just unbelievable. You wouldn’t believe them, if someone told it to you, the kind of stuff that some people have to go through. So those were just a couple of do-good-y bits, really—I just liked to connect with the real world again.
Paste: Then what happened in Somerset, when you guys hooked up again, later in 2019?
Oddie: We started talking about music again, really. I mean, all the four of us, in a room, you know, we’d been talking about music before. But that was the first time that we actually all got together in the same room and decided that we were going to kind of put the fork in the ground, so to speak, in making this record. And we started jamming, playing with some of the stuff that people had written, and just kind of having fun making music again. And you almost have to get back into it, because you go on tour—and for Visions of a Life we were on tour for almost two years or something, 18 months or two years. And it was amazing, it was really, really great.
Paste: What I hear on this record—and maybe you’ll call me crazy—but I hear church. Sunday morning heavenly choirs, and I don’t know if that’s Markus, Ellie or Joff. But this sounds almost like a hymnal.
Rowsell: Yeah, that makes sense. Speaking for myself, I’m not sure if there’s anything lyrically religious in it, because I guess a lot of religion is like … well, I haven’t read enough religious texts, but a lot of it is storytelling, isn’t it? And I think, in terms of it sonically, yeah, a lot of this album has quite a lot of stacked vocals which make me think of choirs, and that’s maybe why it sounds a bit church-y, perhaps.
Paste: Did Markus do that, all that vocal multi-tracking?
Oddie: It definitely wasn’t Markus singing. I mean, I don’t want to speak for Ellie, but that’s something I can say that Ellie’s done for awhile, having known her for a long time. And that’s something that Ellie is incredibly good at, I think. And you’ve always kind of used your voice as an instrument in that regard, on other records, haven’t you? Where you’ve done loads of tracking and stuff. I don’t know—maybe it’s more apparent on this record? That you’re doing that, maybe?
Paste: So what’s your technique, Ellie? And how do you know when a song has been layered enough?
Rowsell: Well, I think just having a bit more time in the studio this time around has meant that we could put too much on it and then take some away, whereas before it was like we never quite got all our ideas down. But I think you can definitely have too much. So yeah, it was nice having the time to be like, “Oh, I’ll try another harmony!” Or “I’m gonna try another … ” whatever it was. So we were lucky in that sense.
Oddie: How do you know when you’ve had enough? Put more in. It’s kind of true, though. More is more!
Paste: What month in 2020 did you go into ICP Studios in Brussels?
Oddie: I can’t remember if it was either late January or early February—around that time. Hold on—I’ve got it here … Yeah. We went in the first week of February. And ICP Studios in Brussels is a big compound, so in this big walled compound, you have accommodations, you have … well, it’s very fancy, to be fair. We were very lucky. You’ve got accommodations, you’ve got the studios, you’ve got live-space, you’ve got a kitchen, you’ve got even a gym and a little garden. We were very spoiled, so isolating in there was not the worst that it could have been. We were very, very lucky to be where we were, just isolating.
Paste: When did you leave? And were there local stores, restaurants where you could get food?
Oddie: I can’t exactly remember when we left. I think we were there for three or four months. It was quite a long time, and we overran by a lot. And to be honest, that had nothing to do with Covid—that was just us, needing more time, I think. But yeah—everything closed. Brussels was one of the first places in the world to close, along with France, maybe. So yeah, it was locked down pretty early. And the guys had food deliveries, so a couple of times a week, there would be a shopping delivery, and that’s kind of how we’d get our food, really. And then there were takeaways and stuff, when we were feeling fancy.
Paste: Ellie, how did it affect you? And what did you go through, personally?
Rowsell: Umm, I mean … I dunno. It was quite intense, to have zero distractions from the music, but of course that had been super important to us—having no distractions. But I guess it became too important, though, and a bit intense, so it was quite hard, in that respect. We had nothing else to focus on, because there was nothing to do, really. But we were really lucky in that respect, too, because by the time we got back to London, it was summer, and it was hot, and you could meet friends in parks and stuff. So we were very, very lucky.
Paste: It seems like you’ve gotten much more introspective on this record, lyrically. “Smile,” alone, is almost like a this-is-who-I-am line drawn in the sand.
Rowsell: Well, it was written before the pandemic. But yeah, I think it’s kind of like, it just serves as a reminder to be kind to yourself. And no matter how someone else might make you feel, you are okay.
Paste: What did Wolf Alice learn about itself through all this?
Oddie: It was a weird time. And I mean, it’s kind of odd for us a little bit, because part of me kind of feels like we didn’t experience it to the same degree as other people. I think we were really lucky to be making a record in lockdown, so that had something to do with it. And we got home, and by the time we got home, things were kind of opening up again. And then the government was allowing people to do visual-audio recordings, so we shot all the music videos and did all the work for that in the winter months. And then since January, we’ve kind of been rehearsing and doing bits there because we’ve been allowed to. So we’ve been very, very lucky to be busy and to be doing stuff, really. But it was odd making an album in lockdown—it was kind of weird, kind of scary and a bit ominous. Making an album in what felt like, or what could be, the Apocalypse. Obviously, it wasn’t. But I think the thing that I learned, and that I keep on learning, throughout the years in Wolf Alice, is that adversity will only bring us—for some reason—closer together. It will only make us laugh harder, which is strange. I think we’re good, faced with a challenge, an obstacle. When things are going good, that’s when you’ve gotta watch out!
Paste: And in times of prosperity, prepare for adversity.
Oddie: Oh! Very good! I like that!
Paste: But I have to ask—where did “Play the Greatest Hits” come from? It’s punk-rock crazy!
Rowsell: I think it’s about when a party has been off for too long, you’d like to take it back a few hours, back to where it was at first, and that sentiment is kind of mirrored in the music, and where that song comes on the album. It’s like, you just never know when that night is gonna occur, really. So there’s a lot of hectic energy in that.
Paste: And you’ve now created your own set-closing “Champagne Supernova” with “Last Man on Earth.” It’s huge.
Rowsell: Well, that’s not for us to say.
Oddie: And I had fuck-all to do in it, to be honest. Apart from a couple of noodle-y guitar bits in it. But I can tell you that when I heard it, it’s probably one of the ones that changed the least from initial demo to recording. And Yeah, I think everyone knew when they heard the demo when it was sent over that it was gonna be a special one. But it was already a special one, to be honest.
Paste: It’s got all these tinkly little adornments on it.
Oddie: Yeah. And we couldn’t get them off, no matter how hard we tried. “Where are they? What are they doing? Where is that noise coming from?” I don’t know. Magic!
Paste: Ellie, in “No Hard Feelings” you say “Life can be short, but life can be sweet.” Given all that time you had to reflect, did you find yourself thinking about mortality?
Rowsell: No. No, I think I just used those words just for saying short and sweet. I dunno—I shouldn’t have said ‘life,’ because I didn’t mean that, really. I just mean that some things can be short. I didn’t mean life, so I regret saying that.
Paste: Where were you coming from on “The Beach,” then? It’s kept afloat on this choral cloud.
Rowsell: Yeah. I dunno. I really love doing that kind of call-and-response thing. And at one point, I thought, “Is this too theatrical, maybe?” But I really loved listening to it, and I loved hearing all of our voices in it. And once we’d done that and “Delicious Things,” it kind of set the bar. I was like, “Okay, we’re really gonna do this, and we’re not embarrassed to do these kinds of choral things, these theatrical, epic kinds of things.” And it just set the tone, really, for the album. And it was just fun—I love that kind of stuff.
Paste: “Safe From Heartbreak” feels like the most experimental, because it’s totally gentle and kind of makes a pillow out of Ellie’s harmonies.
Rowsell: Yeah. We were really inspired by The Roches and their song “The Humming Song.” They have that kind of dry wall of vocal harmonies, and noodling guitars and stuff. I was really inspired by that and wanted to do something similar. They’re a band of sisters, although now I think it’s just one of them and her daughter—I think one of them might have passed away.
Paste: How does starting to tour again feel? Weird? Tentative? Solid?
Oddie: Oh, God. We haven’t had the opportunity yet. We’d love to, but we’re not allowed to over here. We did this livestream event, and it was playing live to a certain extent—playing live to the cameras and the crew there, and we did a couple of things for some radio stations. So we haven’t had the pleasure yet, but we’re itching to do so.
Paste: What was your ultimate metaphorical takeaway from this whole experience?
Rowsell: I think it’s too early to say, for me, personally. I don’t really know. But I feel really proud of us. I feel like I always knew that we were all invested in Wolf Alice, but this album took a lot of work and a lot of emotion. So I feel really like … proud of us, really, that we put so much of ourselves into this record, to get it right. Like, every tiny detail was really, really turned over and thought about. It was quite … I dunno what I’m trying to say …
Paste: Is it true that your Mercury Prize is actually still on display at your local, The Hawley Arms, behind the crisps?
Oddie: It is. Yes, it is.
Paste: But it’s kinda cool—you’ve never really left where you came from.
Oddie: Heh-heh. And we’ll never be asked to go back!
Paste: The ultimate lesson here is, on this record, you’ve finally defined the Wolf Alice sound, by proving that it’s undefinable—it can include anything. Does that make sense?
Oddie: Yeah, kind of. I somewhat kind of take issue with that, a little bit, but it’s all stuff that lives kind of under the kind of alternative rock and pop umbrella, I think. I mean, it’s not like we’re doing straightforward rock music and then doing an experimental jazz piece—they all kind of live within a world.
Rowsell: I kind of agree. And I think that we put in quite a lot of effort to make sure that this album flowed, and there were songs that I really loved that didn’t make it on there, because we didn’t want it to sound like, “Oh, where did that come from? And where did that come from?” So I don’t think it sounds like that. And for me, more than ever before, this album needs to be listened to from top to bottom, because each twist and turn serves whatever comes before or after it. So maybe each song sounds a bit different, but to me, I’m really proud of how it sounds like … like … I dunno—an album.
Paste: Hats off to you for another thing—with your private mailing list, you really keep people informed, and excited about, what’s happening in your camp.
Rowsell: Yeah! Well, I mean, this is super-exciting for us. And we don’t release music all the time, but it’s just a really big time for us, and we are excited, and eager to network. We’ve missed playing, and we’ve missed meeting all the fans, and just people who like music. It’s just been sad, so any way that we can keep connected is good for us.
Oddie: And it’s important, I think. Important to keep that level of enthusiasm up.
Listen to Wolf Alice’s 2014 Daytrotter session below.