It’s relatively easy for drummer Joel Amey to pinpoint the last time Wolf Alice toured Australia.
It was this past September and they had won the Mercury Prize—arguably the highest honour for a band in the UK—just hours before boarding the plane. ‘We flew to Sydney the very next day,’ says Amey. ‘We were still so hungover from celebrating. Then when we landed in Singapore it was my birthday, so we celebrated for 45 minutes during our layover in the Singapore airport before the next flight left. We arrived in Sydney the next morning and played that night. That was just crazy.’
While this may be one of the more extreme cases, the last few years have been a whirlwind for Wolf Alice. ‘I don’t think we’ve stopped since we started,’ Amey notes. ‘We toured on the first album for two and a half years and that led right into the last record. Ever since I joined the band, this is all I’ve been doing. And thank god because I love doing this and I didn’t like what I was doing beforehand.’
Founded as an acoustic duo in 2010, Wolf Alice enlisted a bassist and drummer before their first EP. Five years and a couple of EPs later, the band released their debut full-length providing sonic proof that their gentle and humble beginnings were far behind them. Sure, My Love is Cool has some soft spots, but they’re usually part of a dynamic balance that has come to define the band. Loud and quiet, fast and slow, heavy and soft, the band’s sound tends to vary between songs, and quite often, even in the course of a single track.
The album was nominated for the Mercury Prize, an award acknowledging the year’s best album by a British or Irish recording artist. The honourable mention gave the band some added clout and a bigger studio budget for their follow-up. When it came time to record Visions of a Life, Wolf Alice headed to LA to work with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, a musician who has played with Beck and Nine Inch Nails, and a sound engineer who had previously produced records for Tegan and Sara, M83, and The Raveonettes, to name a few.
‘We were also allotted quite a lot of time,’ Amey remembers. ‘We had three months to record in America. We had all this time to beef up the songs and it just became so expansive and dense. I’m so grateful for Justin and the guys who worked with him on that record. He was very supportive of us experimenting and pushed us to experiment and to go that extra yard.’
The resulting record skillfully takes on an array of sounds, each track taking you some place different than the one before it. It’s at times heavier, angrier, poppier and dreamier than its predecessor. It’s suspenseful, with vocals ranging from aggravated lyrical assaults to delicate personal songs where fragile words often lean on the added support of the strong backbone of instrumentation. Shimmering guitars and ethereal vocals provide shades of shoegaze, while their more rigid rock songs are reminiscent of Brit-Pop’s alternative heyday.
‘There are a lot of layers to Visions of a Life,’ says Amey. ‘Quite literally, there are many different layers of sound, and I think it’s one of those records that rewards you the fourth listen in. One day I gave it a listen where no one would catch me, and there were so many things that I would hear and remember ‘oh yeah we did that thing and that thing there.’ I think that’s what was so liberating about that record and how that record was made.’
No signs of a sophomore slump here. Wolf Alice’s new batch of songs was adventurous and satisfying, and they were rewarded for their efforts by winning the Mercury Prize. ‘It most definitely it took us by surprise,’ Amey reminisces. ‘We’re all very romantic about music, and we’re not a band that chases accolades in any sense whatsoever. The Mercury Prize is a very respected award. We don’t treat making our records lightly. We put a lot into it, so to come out the other end with a prize, it definitely wasn’t expected. At the same time, we didn’t think too much about it. I remember the guy at the airport recognised us and said, “Oh you guys just won the Mercury Prize.” I guess it was in the newspapers and stuff. You feel very lucky, even to be nominated. It transcends the box that you live in for the rest of the year. I think one of the great things about the Prize is it raises awareness about all sorts of different music and all sorts of different acts and albums. Definitely any good things that come from that we see as a blessing.’
After winning the award and finishing up their lengthy world tour in December, Wolf Alice took some well-deserved time off in 2019, opting only to play a handful of festivals this year. Splendour will be just their second show of the year.
‘The opportunity to do Splendour is a big deal for us,’ says Amey. ‘There is a great deal of prestige in even being asked to play it. We played it back in 2015 and I remember it was the muddiest festival I’ve ever been to except for Glastonbury. It was crazy muddy. It was just after the release of our first record and we played the main stage, which was pretty crazy. And now we’re playing the main stage again. There are loads of great bands there. I went to my first festival when I was 13 years old and I’ve continued to do so for many, many years. It was only recently in the UK where we played stages at Glastonbury and Reading, which are bucket list stages for us. You always dream about those kinds of things when you grow up going to festivals. It will be nice to see people at Splendour this year. Hopefully there are some fans there that weren’t able to catch us when we played Australia last time around.’
So, does the band feel the pressure to make another Mercury Prize-nominated record? ‘No. Like I say, every now and then I have to remember that thing happened,’ Amey says. ‘It’s not like we’re sitting around writing thinking, “Oh come on, we won the Mercury Prize!” That would just be the weirdest band to be in. We’re not a pop band. We don’t write formulaic Brit Award-worthy hits. For us, everything happens the way it happens without us having to have an agenda. Just like the second record, it will be different than the one before it. That is always the most important thing. You feel like you have to keep getting better. Not that the other ones are bad, but why else would you do it? We don’t really fit into one specific scene. If you change, then the music has to change as well, especially if you write personally. I mean, it was two years in between records. A lot changes in two years. A lot changes in one year. I think the fact that we were actually able to take some time off will bring something new to the table.’
And if you’re wondering if the award is under lock and key, or on someone’s trophy table, it’s not. ‘I shouldn’t say this, actually, but the award is on the top shelf at one of our favourite pubs. I won’t say which one, but it’s still there. Every now and then I’ll go in for a pint and look up and go, “Oh shit. There it is on the top shelf next to all the crisps.”‘