The lead vocalist and guitar player chats about intentions, the importance of a record producer + more.
“Do you mind if my video’s off?” Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell would rather not have her webcam judging her in this Zoom meeting – and really, fair enough too. Besides, she’s got bigger fish to fry right now – namely, talking shop on her band’s third studio album, Blue Weekend.
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Even without the accompaniment of facial expressions, Rowsell is excited to discuss the record – especially as her country slowly moves its way out of stage-four lockdown and the chance of getting to actually play these songs to a real-life audience grows increasingly prospective.
Needless to say, a lot has gone into the build for the new Wolf Alice record – years between releases and pandemic delays among them. What’s most curious, though, is how truly blank the canvas was when the London band began piecing together the follow-up to 2017’s Visions of a Life.
There were no grand directives to make an X-sounding record, or a song that sounds like Y – and even if there were, that notion was quickly abandoned by the four-piece.
“We often start with specific intentions and then just kind of drop them along the way,” Rowsell explains.
“We often find that they hinder us. We have so many influences, and we like a lot of different things musically. We tend to just do whatever’s best for that song individually.
“If you start out with big intentions for an album, then you’ll then have to lose certain songs if they don’t fit. The problem is, that might be your best song. With this album, we had these songs that were quite simple.
“We wanted to bring out the feeling and the emotion of the lyrics – regardless of what that meant for the music. Our sole intention was to capture how we felt playing these songs.”
Said servicing of said songs took many different forms over the course of Blue Weekend‘s creation, which the band undertook in the hallowed halls of a converted church. While some songs worked best with a pared back and refined arrangement, others truly took flight when they were allowed to be as exorbitant as the band pleased.
Rowsell points to the song “Delicious Things” as a key example of the latter.
“We’d gotten to a certain point in the studio, and something just didn’t seem right,” she recalls.
“I know people always emphasise the less-is-more approach – obviously, a song like Lorde’s ‘Royals’ does all these amazing things with basically just drums and vocals. For me, though, my first instinct is always to put loads and loads of stuff in the mix.
“When we were making that song, I was like, ‘Okay, I know it’s not the done thing, but just allow me for a second to throw everything into song that I want to.’ It ended up with a real string arrangement, synth pads, trumpets, brass, harp… just so much stuff.
“As soon as we did that, I just felt so much more confident. It’s a big song – there’s probably like 50 vocal tracks on it. I think that whole experience made me realise that maybe less is not more. Even if it is, it’s not how I like it.”
Joining the band in the studio was producer Markus Dravs, a 30-year veteran whose CV spans indie giants like Arcade Fire and Florence + The Machine as well as more obscure names like Coldplay and Kings Of Leon. Wolf Alice have never worked with the same producer twice – 2015’s My Love is Cool was helmed by UK producer and songwriter Mike Crossey, while Visions of a Life saw longtime Beck collaborator Justin Meldal-Johnsen behind the boards.
When queried about what a producer brings to the fold insofar as the band is concerned, Rowsell muses that it comes down to ostensibly finding a fifth member of Wolf Alice – even if it is on a part-time basis.
“It’s really valuable,” she says. “The four of us have lived and breathed those songs for so long by the time we’ve gone in to record them. You really need a fifth person so you can see the wood from trees.
“All the producers we’ve had on board have different ways of working. Someone like Justin, he’s first and foremost a musician. He’s been in bands his whole life, and you can really see that in the way he works.
“Markus, on the other hand, is a producer through and through – and you can see that as well. Both are really valuable, because it’s nice to have a pair of ears that’s coming from a completely different place to you.”
For an album that often expands upon the band’s already-widespread take on maximalist indie rock, Blue Weekend is curious in the sense that it was primarily crafted with the band’s go-to equipment and live set-up. There were no lavish experiments with new pedals or obscure guitars to be found – instead, Rowsell and co. found a lot within trusting what utensils were readily available to them.
“For the first time, we had a bit more confidence in the gear we always use,” she says.
“Often when you first go into the studio, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, there’s so much cool gear here – I’m gonna use this and this and this.’ You end up not sounding like yourself, because you haven’t even used the guitar that you use every day.
“We stuck to a lot of the stuff that we do know – my cheap Korean knockoff Telecaster, or our Line 6 DL4. They’re not expensive pieces of equipment, but they sound like us. We’ve definitely suffered in the past from doubting ourselves too much – always thinking ‘Well, if I can do it, then it mustn’t be very good.’ If you hear anything on this album, it’s us having more confidence.”
Wolf Alice’s new album Blue Weekend is out now via Liberator Music / Dirty Hit.