Kicking off their North American tour with a sold out show Wednesday night at Schubas, I spoke with Wolf Alice drummer Joel Amey about the band's 2016 Lollapalooza performances in Chicago, recording their second studio album Visions of a Life and avoiding the sophomore slump...
There are so many clichés that accompany the idea of writing and recording a band's second album.
But having worked on EPs since 2013, UK alternative quartet Wolf Alice was determined to avoid them.
The process that bore their sophomore full length, Visions of a Life (due out September 29th), was an introspective one that began on the road. Ideas occasionally resembling diary entries germinated, eventually resulting in a dozen songs.
Those road-borne ideas were fleshed out over about six months of work that began as pre-production at the band's London rehearsal space and were eventually polished up during sessions at three Los Angeles studios.
The band worked with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen and engineer Tom Elmhirst on the songs. Longtime Beck musical director Meldal-Johnsen has produced artists like M83 and Paramore while Elmhirst has worked with artists like Amy Winehouse, Lorde and Frank Ocean, mixing David Bowie's 2016 swan song Blackstar.
Both had a profound impact on the forthcoming Wolf Alice album.
"I can’t really speak highly enough of Justin. I really can’t... He’s unrelenting in terms of trying to find quality," said Wolf Alice drummer Joel Amey of Meldal-Johnsen. "And we were so happy to have Tom as well willing to work on the record. He’s probably up there in the top three mix engineers in the entire world. He’s mixed some of our favorite records of all time... It's crazy, you know?"
Anyone who saw the group's energetic set last year at Lollapalooza can attest to the dynamic strength of Wolf Alice's live performances. Launching their North American tour Wednesday night in Chicago at Schubas, Wolf Alice have made a concerted effort to bring their live show back to smaller club venues as they generate interest in Visions of a Life through the combination of those live shows and new singles, "Yuk Foo" and "Don't Delete the Kisses."
I spoke with Joel Amey about recording the new Wolf Alice album Visions of a Life and about bringing the group's live show back to American clubs. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. Let’s start with the tour – you guys kick off the U.S. leg here in Chicago. Is this your first time back since Lollapalooza?
Joel Amey: It is actually, yeah. Our last time there was the Lollapalooza festival which was a bit of a whirlwind trip. But it was really, really fun. I think it was the most tired… I felt winded after those two sets. It was quite an intense day.
I remember it being really, really hot. I wasn’t expecting it to be so humid. And just like knowing it was our last gig in America for the forseeable future, [we were] just like piledriving into the set - just playing really badly but really hard the whole time. And then halfway through it was like, “It’s really, really hot and I’m so unfit.” Just halfway through [I was] thinking like, “I need a timeout.” But it was really good.
I was just really tired. And then not going to sleep until like 1AM after Lincoln Hall? That was kind of intense.
Q. It looks like you guys specifically picked smaller venues for the American leg of this tour. At home you'd play something like Glastonbury, so what’s it like playing clubs here?
JA: I’m really excited. It’s going to be quite nice. Not like a refresher - because we started playing gigs like those and did for a long time and we really love playing them. Those kind of venues are in Wolf Alice’s DNA.
I think this new record should actually sound quite good in a small room. So we can stay in and see the whites of people’s eyes. It should work quite nicely.
Q. That new record, Visions of a Life, is due out September 29th. What was the band’s collective thought process heading into writing and recording?
JA: Well, the process piecing things together started about two years ago throughout the time we were on tour.
Everyone had the means to make music - laptops, keyboards, acoustic guitars and whatnot.
We were in our early 20s when we started touring. And a lot happened in those two and a half, three years.
When you’re on the road, if you write the way that we kind of do as people, music is a bit of a therapy session. It kind of drives a lot of us writing stuff, each of us individually. So it became sort of like diary entries.
And it wasn’t really until we came back into our rehearsal space, which is where I am right now in a very wet London, that we started piecing it together and fleshing ideas out and sort of cutting away the dead stuff and looking at what could actually be strong enough to go onto the next record.
And we did that. It was freezing cold. Then we went to California where it was really, really hot. And it was kind of a strange juxtaposition of places making the same music.
Q. Where did you record in California?
JA: We did some pre-production for a couple of weeks at an amazing little studio called 64 Sound which is run by a really cool guy called Pierre [de Reeder]. He used to be in a band called Rilo Kiley. He’s got a studio just north of Eagle Rock in California.
Then we went down to Hollywood, which sounds like even more of a cliché, and me and [Wolf Alice bassist] Theo [Ellis] tracked all of our drum parts and most of our bass parts at a studio called EastWest Studios which was pretty cool.
Then after that we moved into the amazing backyard complex that our engineer has called Music Friends. What used to be his garage is now his studio. And we finished the record while we were there.
So we managed to hit up three different studios in Los Angeles which is absolutely bonkers.
Q. Well the new album is produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen and mixed by Tom Elmhirst. What was it like working with them?
JA: I can’t really speak highly enough of Justin. I really can’t. He came over and did some pre-production with us in a week in a cold December. And where he got the songs to from where they were sitting - which is where we took them to the states - I was just kind of so stoked.
He’s just an incredibly creative person all around. His music knowledge is like a Wikipedia page for what’s cool. He just knows everything about these bands you love. If you try to reference one, he’s like, “Here, try this. Try that.” He’s amazing to work with.
He’s unrelenting in terms of trying to find quality. I’ve never felt more pushed for one thing, or to push myself, as I did working with Justin. He really just pulled us up and was like, “You could do this…” He was never like, “Stay away from the desk. Don’t touch anything.” He’s like, “You should learn this. Learn to do this.” It was just the most creative situation I’ve ever been in and I do thank him for that.
And we were so happy to have Tom as well willing to work on the record. He’s probably up there in the top three mix engineers in the entire world. He’s phenomenal. He’s mixed some of our favorite records of all time. To have him want to do to it? We were really happy. It’s crazy, you know?
Q. How long did you guys wind up working on it? I know you said some of these ideas started to come together on the road but, from writing through recording, how long would you say Wolf Alice spent on that process?
JA: I’m probably going to get this wrong. I’m going to say about six months. The others will be like, “No…”
But we were really working on stuff in our rehearsal space from October till January and we took off in January and came home in May with an album.
Q. The collective experiences I'm assuming you guys have had since the first album came out in 2015 - the way that, once the band started to hit in America, it progressed pretty quickly - is remarkable for such a short period of time. Is that sort of growth reflected in the new album?
JA: It probably seems quick if you’re from Chicago. But if you’re from [London] you know we’ve been going for ages, you know? We started doing EPs quite a few years ago and then the first record is probably the introduction most people had to Wolf Alice.
But we had so many experiences together. We are kind of a band that I think writes inwards. Lyrically, on this record, it feels like a very personal record. We’ve always kind of had more of an emotional side to the music. I think it’s just the way it comes to us naturally.
And that’s kind of what you should do.
We’ve never forced the point with anything or been like, “Oh we need to write a song that says this…” It’s been a lot of looking inwards and then projecting it outwards if you will.
Q. I’ve seen you guys say in other interviews that there wasn’t a lot of pressure from the record companies when it came time to putting the second album together - that they’ve let you do your own thing. That’s not necessarily something I hear from a lot of artists, especially when it pertains to all of the clichés that often plague a sophomore recording effort...
JA: We were really lucky.
We work with a label called Dirty Hit. We work with RCA in America. They were kind of more just like, “What have you got?” And we’d show them bits. There was a few times when a few people were like, “Well, I don’t get it…” And we were like, “Nah, just wait…” And then they waited and were just kind of like, “Oh, ok.”
But, ultimately, we’re really lucky. We work with, what in my very biased opinion, are two of the best labels in the world. They try to make it as creative as possible for us in every single way. They support a lot of our motivations and our ideas.
RCA, for a major label, works kind of differently than most major labels I’ve come across. And Dirty Hit is an independent label but very much treats it with the drive of a major label.
But they let us do our own thing, be creative and let things flow. They afforded us time. They never said to us, “We need to have twelve more ‘Moaning Lisa Smiles,’ otherwise we’re not putting the record out.”
It’s been years of horror stories about album two and… I don’t know, we’re very lucky. I appreciate your voice on how those clichés and pitfalls can dog some bands, at least during the writing process.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Wednesday's Wolf Alice show at Schubas below)
Wednesday, July 5, 2017
Also performing: Ovef Ow
$15 *** SOLD OUT ***
Click HERE to purchase tickets