LONDON – When London indie-rock foursome Wolf Alice makes its Japan debut at the Summer Sonic festival this weekend, it will be three years, two EPs, one debut album and countless incendiary live gigs since it first sent alternative music blogs into a frenzy with a single track uploaded to SoundCloud, that most modern barometer of a band’s potential.
Yet, somewhat unusually in this here-today, forgotten-tomorrow Internet age, the hype around Wolf Alice is only just reaching fever pitch. Confused? Well, so are the band members themselves.
“We’re the oldest hyped band ever,” says bassist Theo Ellis with a laugh.
“We were actually on the ‘ones to watch’ lists three years ago,” interjects singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell. “But that’s not our fault!”
“I don’t think we feel like that anymore though,” adds guitarist Joff Oddie. “It’s almost like we’re cheating. Surely if it happens for longer it’s not being a buzz band anymore?”
As you can probably surmise, Wolf Alice is not a group of individuals that are particularly comfortable with praise, which is something of an irony given the bucket loads they receive. It is entirely justified: Wolf Alice is one of those bands where you dare use the oft uttered cliche “believe the hype” without fear of contradiction. With “My Love Is Cool,” the group has produced one of the best debut albums of 2015.
Fresh from attending a life-drawing class across town (that’s as students, not models), the band, with fourth member, drummer Joel Amey, meet me in a newly refurbished bar in Shoreditch, a principally hipster area in the always trendy east London. Wolf Alice is based a few miles away in the north London borough of Camden, the British indie scene’s former mecca. Various incarnations of the band have been in existence since 2010, when Rowsell met Oddie through a website where musicians advertise their prowess in the hope of connecting with like-minded souls. The pair gigged, with some trepidation, at open mic and folk nights before Amey and Ellis beefed up the lineup permanently in 2012. It took just one track, “Leaving You,” to start the clamor.
Wolf Alice’s upward trajectory has been no less feverish for all of its relative steadiness. For three years, fans had to make do with a pair of EP’s (2013’s “Blush” and last year’s “Creature Songs”), while the band took ages (at least, by Internet standards) to make a full-length debut.
“We knew there was more expectation, but we didn’t think we took that long all things considered,” Ellis claims. “And we did put out 12 songs in between, which is an album’s worth.”
The extra time has paid dividends. Wolf Alice might have done its growing up in public, but the result is that, strangely for a debut album, you can already hear a sense of evolution. Much of “My Love Is Cool” has its roots in the early 1990s, be it grunge or shoegaze, rather than their folky, The xx-inspired earlier work, but it never sounds in thrall to its influences. Infected with that specific type of effervescence that is the preserve of the young, their snapshots of London life, love and friendship sound invigoratingly new.
“We never sat down and thought about what genre of music we are or where we are going to fit on the iTunes,” Amey says. “We’ve never asked, are we an indie band? A rock band? We’ve just written songs and figured out parts of the songs for that.”
Rowsell continues: “We’ve never been like, ‘Oh we really want to write a grunge song today, we really want to write a punk song today.’ If it’s a good song, we just let it grow in whatever direction. If that’s subconsciously influenced because you listened to the Pixies, we don’t really think about that too much.”
Sitting opposite Rowsell, it’s difficult to envisage this is the frontwoman leading the charge for British guitar bands. I see Wolf Alice live a few days either side of our meeting — at the Clapham Calling and Latitude festivals — and amid the huge layers of noise she has a magnetic stage presence that veers between poise and power at a stroke.
Yet during our conversation, she is surprisingly shy and distracted. It makes me wonder how the increased fame that is on the horizon would affect Wolf Alice, but she insists the band is striving “to be big.”
“But I think when people say they want to be big, people assume that it means I want to be famous. But we don’t care about s—- like that.”
Oddie is far more adamant: “I want to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Why not? I don’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want to get really big. We just want our music to be heard by as many people as possible. Why not headline festivals?”
“It’s like how many people do you want to read your article, 1,000 or 1 million?” Ellis asks me. “If you’re proud of something, you want people to get into it.”
“But it’s hard to portray that, as Ellie said, the fame thing and the peripheral stuff is not what we are focusing on,” Amey adds. “But we definitely want to play big shows and to big crowds.”
This is a refreshing antidote, I say, to many bands who express indifference at their commercial success. “They’re lying!” is the uniformed, animated response.
“They are just trying to sound cool,” Rowsell retorts. “Or maybe they are scared about getting big and being famous because they are scared about it, scared how their lives will change. Which is fair enough.”
“There is also that argument that you don’t want to get that big because you don’t want a certain clientele coming to your show,” Ellis contends, “but that argument is morally wrong. We’re not a Nazi band. We want to play to everyone, all the time!”
That means a first trip to Japan this weekend, about which the band are visibly excited, if a bit unsure as to what awaits.
“We’ve got one free day and we’re not sure where to go,” Amey says. “We just want to go and see the best stuff we can.”
“We’ve got no idea really how we’ve gone down in Japan,” Ellis says. “But there’s only one way to find out — get out there and do a gig!”
It’s yet another sign of how different things are for Wolf Alice since the band took its initial wide-eyed, tentative steps three years ago.
“We’ve got a new career, we’re away a lot, and we spend more time on the road than at home, which is pretty strange,” Rowsell says.
“And we’re organized,” Ellis adds. “I’ve never been organized before in my life and now everything is planned for me.”
“But we’re not just playing to blogs anymore,” Oddie says. “Playing to our own fans now is the biggest relief in the world.”
SonicMania, Summer Sonic and the Hostess Club All-Nighter take place at QVC Marine Field and Makuhari Messe in Chiba on Aug. 14, 15 and 16. One-day tickets cost ¥15,500 and the Hostess Club All-Nighter (11:15 p.m. start on Aug. 15) costs ¥8,500. Summer Sonic takes place at Maishima in Osaka on Aug. 15 and 16. One-day tickets cost ¥10,500. For more information on timetables and performers, visit www.summersonic.com/2015. For more information on Wolf Alice, visit wolfalice.co.uk.
Who to see at this year’s Summer Sonic
The British are coming and they’re armed with a healthy dose of 1990s nostalgia. Of all the major U.K. acts heading to Japan for this weekend’s Summer Sonic events, most enjoyed their commercial peak more than 15 years ago, some more deserved (Spiritualized) than others (Cast).
Manic Street Preachers are embracing the past unequivocally, and will perform “The Holy Bible,” their brutal, harrowing and nihilistic 1994 masterpiece, in its entirety. Their recent London shows were exhilarating, cathartic experiences for both the band and the audience.
Thom Yorke is the exception to this ’90s rule having remained relevant through his band Radiohead’s constant reinvention. His solo gig, part of the Hostess Club All-Nighter portion of the festival, is a huge coup for organizers as it will be only his third show in support of last year’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” album. I caught the first show, a late-night performance at last month’s Latitude festival, and it was a captivating exploration of insular electronica from a singular talent.
Dance is well represented elsewhere. As their visually extravagant Other Stage Glastonbury headline show proved, The Chemical Brothers still rave on impressively. Similarly, The Prodigy might be creatively bankrupt, but its live show remains as visceral as ever.
As for new acts, Wolf Alice has had critics buzzing for a while and is a real must-see.