Wanna piss off a band? Ask them who influences their sound. Better yet, tell them who you think their influences are and watch their faces tense up as they do their best not to roll their eyes and walk away in a huff. Every artist, no matter the medium, loves to think they're creating something wholly original or that, at the least, they’ve filtered their influences into something that can stand on its own and not be heard as an incidental homage to said influences.
It’s difficult to listen to Wolf Alice’s RCA debut, "My Love Is Cool" (out June 23), and not hear the specter of ‘90s alternative rock looming over the songs. The grungy guitar crunch on the single “Moaning Lisa Smile" sounds like vintage Nirvana or Hole. Crowd favorite "Bros" is cut from the same cloth (flannel perhaps?) as the Smashing Pumpkins' anthem “1979.” The lush “Silk” starts out like a Mazzy Star ballad before segueing into something more closely resembling Sneaker Pimps.
Yes, a lot has been made of Wolf Alice sounding like they're trying to resurrect what is, perhaps at this point, a nostalgic rock sound. But to hear singer Ellie Rowsell tell it, they're just playing what comes naturally.
"I don't really know what ‘90s music is," says Rowsell over the phone in between tour stops. "I listen to Blur, and they're a ‘90s band, and I listen to Nirvana, but they sound nothing like each other -- so which ‘90s band are we supposed to sound like? And then there are ones we get compared to like Elastica and Hole. It's just such a broad concept, ‘90s music. It’s such a broad thing, and I'm not offended by it, and I don't try to distance myself from it. I just hope that people who don't like ‘90s music will give us a chance as well 'cause we're not all about that. We have different sides."
That they do. In fact, much of "My Love Is Cool" sounds more like a band just beginning to grasp what they want to sound like. It's very easy to simply label them an alternative-rock band, if only for the fact that their songs are so stylistically varied. Rowsell admits that most of the band didn't even really know how to play their respective instruments when they first formed almost four years ago.
"I didn't really know how to play the guitar or how to sing," says Rowsell. "Joel [Amey] had only just picked up the drums, but you know, it was very fresh. I think we played a lot of shows that might have sounded very bad, but I think there's a certain charm to that. You have to start from the roots up."
Wolf Alice’s roots begin in 2010, when Rowsell and guitarist Joff Oddie started playing together at coffeehouses and open mic nights around North London. They released an EP that same year that could best be described as folkish-pop, but Rowsell says that quickly became boring, and the duo recruited Amey and bassist Theo Ellis to try something new.
"I do think I wanted to be in a loud band, but I didn't really know how to go about that," she says. “I didn't really know much about the electric guitar or -- I don't know -- it didn't seem like an obvious option. And then once we started doing it, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this wonderful.'"
The band quickly garnered buzz in the London scene, and their single "Leaving You" began getting spins on BBC Radio 1. Pretty soon, British tastemaking publications like "NME" were knighting them as the next big thing, and they went from having a few people at their shows to playing packed club gigs with lines around the block.
"It was May of last year that we went on a tour, and it was the first time we had people dancing around at our shows," says Rowsell. "Loads of the shows were packed, and people were singing along. That's when you realize like, oh s---, this is pretty legit now."
American critics were just as impressed when the band came stateside to play at March’s South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. Respected Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot called them a "fangs-baring rock band," while the much more hipster-friendly blog Bushwick Daily described them as a beautiful “blend of atmospheric grunge-pop, punk riffs and hushed harmonies." Somewhere around the SxSW shows, they were signed to RCA Records, the label that broke bands like the Strokes and Kings of Leon.
"I was trying not to think about it too much," says Rowsell when asked about SxSW and the band's initial American dates. "Then we first got to South by Southwest, and I thought it was just quite a cool thing, but I did not expect to see anybody at our shows. It was really cool not to see an empty room."
Whether Wolf Alice can connect with American audiences the same way they have with British fans remains to be seen, but given the recent successes of ‘90s-channeling bands like Parquet Courts and Haim, it seems likely Rowsell and company won't be playing to empty rooms any time soon. All of the members are still in their early 20s, so even if "My Love Is Cool" sounds derivative to keener ears, the band has more than enough time to grow and evolve.
"We're not trying to fit into some kind of concept or genre. That would be boring. We're exploring. We're still, in my eyes, a relatively new band, and we're exploring how we play and how we write," Rowsell says. "But it does feel like everything's kind of falling into place, and yeah, I'm happy."
Wolf Alice play Soda Bar on Saturday at 8:30 p.m., $14, 21+. Gateway Drugs open. Tickets are available here.
Seth Combs writes about music for local and national publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @combsseth.