Jun 02, 2021
By Conrad Duncan
Photography by Jordan Hemingway
Issue #68 – Japanese Breakfast and HAIM (The Protest Issue)
When Wolf Alice stepped off stage at London’s Brixton Academy at the end of 2018, they left as a band with the world at their feet. The British four-piece’s eclectic second album, Visions of a Life, had brought them commercial success and critical acclaim in equal measure, culminating in a Mercury Prize win and support slots for rock royalty (Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Liam Gallagher). They could have easily coasted on that momentum to bigger venues and mainstream attention. Instead, they parted ways for the first extended period since 2014’s Creature Songs EP marked them out as indie rock rising stars.
“We got to a point when we were a bit sick of everything we were doing,” frontwoman Ellie Rowsell explains. “We needed to go away and remember who we were as individuals. You know, living out of suitcases and having destroyed all our other relationships, it was important to go back and sort that shit out.” Some six months later, they reconvened at a rehearsal studio complex in north London—“a hollowed-out shipping container” in the words of bassist Theo Ellis—during the summer of 2019 to begin work on what would become their third album: Blue Weekend.
We’re speaking in the middle of February as Wolf Alice are preparing to announce their comeback, with the campaign so fresh that the band members are not even entirely sure when the album is coming out. Ellis jokes that it feels as though the album was finally finished just two days ago. “It’s like Chinese Democracy this album,” he adds, referring to the long gestation of Guns N’ Roses’ 2008 album.
As with much of the music of 2021, Blue Weekend was put together under the cloud of COVID-19, with delays and restrictions prolonging the recording process. The band members found themselves working in Brussels as the world ground to a halt during the first weeks of the pandemic, bringing an added intensity to the sessions. “There was nothing to take your mind off it,” guitarist Joff Oddie says, to which Ellis agrees. “The studio itself is residential and all encompassing—you eat there, you do everything there—so you’re already in a kind of isolation,” he says. “You’ve created that form of isolation because that’s what you seek out to try to focus on the record. So there’s a weird thing where you’re already in that space and then suddenly the whole world is there too.”
Like its predecessor, Blue Weekend pays little attention to the idea that a band should have a signature sound, as it veers from bratty punk ragers (“Play the Greatest Hits”) to festival-ready anthems (“How Can I Make It OK?”) and grand ballads (“The Last Man on Earth”). Yet this time, the eclecticism feels more natural and refined. “I feel like on previous Wolf Alice albums, people have always struggled to join up the dots between some songs,” Ellis says. “That’s maybe because we’re not necessarily a band that has set out to sound like a communal favorite band of ours in the first place.”
Instead, the four-piece work towards making music that matches the emotional needs of Rowsell’s writing—which has grown more personal and direct, building on the tenderness of their most popular singles. “I always protect myself maybe by putting a certain ambiguity onto everything,” Rowsell admits. “I tried to do that less because I’d seen other people do it and really admired it in some ways.”
That does not mean though that Blue Weekend is a completely open book. There is still an air of mystery around these songs, which reveal themselves slowly and have a stormy, elemental atmosphere. And there is room too for a little ambiguity, not least with the album’s title—which remains an unsolved puzzle for the band themselves. “We came about it because we were in a cab and I said to Joel [Amey, drummer] and Theo: ‘Next blue weekend we should go to the forest which is on the outskirts of Brussels,’” Rowsell says. “And Joel was like ‘blue weekend…that’s an album name’… I still don’t know if a blue weekend is a good one or a bad one.” That’s when Amey cuts in: “I think Belgium went into lockdown one day later…”
Nevertheless, it certainly fits the tone of these songs. Blue Weekend conjures a spellbindingly enigmatic mood, somewhere between hope and melancholy, between intimacy and grandeur. Most importantly, it may be Wolf Alice’s finest work to date.
[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 68 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]