Leaping out among the 12 albums on today’s Mercury Prize shortlist is Wolf Alice’s My Love is Cool, a bright, swaggering collection that makes indie rock sound cool again at a time when the style is far from dominant. I caught up with the band earlier this week in the middle of a US tour, arranging an interview on the basis that I thought they were likely to be among the nominees, and ought to be. They’re flattered.
“If that was to happen it would be amazing,” says gap-toothed singer Ellie Rowsell, 23. If she has been given any early warning about the shortlist, she does an excellent job of hiding it. “We’re very lucky that we have this amazing fanbase, who suppport us even when we slip up, so I guess this kind of thing would be a nice acknowledgement that people who are just listening to us purely musically are enjoying it as well.”
Confident drummer Joel Amey, 25, who makes up the male three-quarters of the band with guitarist Joff Oddie, 24, and bassist Theo Ellis, 23, has fond memories of new ravers Klaxons storming the stage after beating Amy Winehouse to win the award in 2007. “That felt massively euphoric when I was a teenager, covered in bright fluorescent paint with dayglo shoelaces.” He respects the artistic heights reached by past victors, especially double winner PJ Harvey, so of course will be thrilled for his band to be named today.
“Even us talking about it is such a privilege,” he says. “It’s a very strong validation of the musicality of the record, rather than someone saying, ‘It’s sold this many units, let’s give it a prize.’ I’ve learned from it, too. I found out about Polar Bear [the jazz band, not the furry arctic resident] through the Mercury.”
He’s hoping that Wolf Alice are joined on the shortlist by their pals Drenge, who they’re playing with in America at the moment, and Alt-J, who they supported at the O2 Arena at the start of this year. That was a significant gig in a year of many. My Love is Cool was a summer hit, just beaten to the number one spot by Florence + the Machine in the week that she headlined Glastonbury. Its success made the London-based band big enough to headline a massive homecoming gig at Brixton Academy last month.
“I grew up just outside London, and have been to more gigs at Brixton Academy than I can remember,” says Amey. “My mum used to take me all the time. She wasn’t one of those parents who waits outside – she’s a legend, she was well in there. I saw the Hives there on my 14th birthday, Kings of Leon, Linkin Park, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party… so it was a total trip to play there. I was biting my lip, getting all pumped up about how many people were singing all the words to our songs. It was a good moment.”
It was a fairly long time coming. Holloway resident Rowsell formed the band as a folky duo when she was in her late teens, finding Oddie on a musicians’ web forum. They didn’t get very far. “It wasn’t that we were bad, we were just inexperienced,” she tells me. “We were new to our instruments, new to songwriting, finding our feet as performers and writers. We were just testing the waters.”
When Amey and Ellis joined, the band got louder and the buzz got noisier. According to the blog aggregator Hype Machine, Wolf Alice were the most blogged-about band of 2013. They were tagged as grunge revivalists, but while they indulge in that quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic on songs such as You’re a Germ, a dark rocker about a predatory older man, their album is a far more eclectic affair. The witchy folk of Turn to Dust has a Wicker Man feel to it, while the light bounce of Freazy could have been given to a straight pop act. Amey cut his teeth in an electronic pop band called Mafia Lights, and hasn’t forgotten how to write a big tune. “The album isn’t the three-note grunge record that people were expecting,” he stresses. “I want to listen to Hudson Mohawke one day and The Stooges the next – it shouldn’t be one-dimensional.”
What strikes me most strongly is the range of Rowell’s voice: multilayered and echoing on Bros, sweet and airy on Soapy Water, a harsh snarl on the most raucous song, Giant Peach. “I have a short attention span when it comes to albums. If someone knows how to use their voice in different ways, I can’t get bored,” she says.
She sounds understandably bored of questions about being the only girl in the band. Unlike some other groups with that dynamic, she’s not obviously the most charismatic, and seems to have had a more straightforward upbringing, attending Camden School for Girls, than Amey with his endless gig-going. “I don’t mind being surrounded by men at all. I’m pretty sweaty and disgusting myself,” she says. “Unfortunately it never crossed my mind with Wolf Alice that people would think I was ‘Alice’ and this was my project.” She named the band after a short story by Angela Carter.
“If you know us, we’re very much a four-piece and all play a different and important role. I don’t feel any pressure at all to carry the whole thing. I don’t like it when they take our photograph and make me sit on a chair, while everyone else stands behind me.”
So, if you want to get on the band’s good side, make sure everyone has a seat. They’ll all have one, plus a fancy dinner, at one of the Mercury Prize’s round tables when the ceremony takes place on November 20. And if they should end up the winners, unlike Young Fathers last year, the singer promises that they’ll crack a smile. “Maybe they were nervous. Yes, I’m sure we would be very happy,” she says. “If we won I would be ecstatic.” Don’t bet against them.
My Love is Cool is out now on Dirty Hit.