Wu Lyf- can they survive the mainstream?
When I first saw Wu Lyf a couple of years ago it was one of those stop in your tracks moments. In a nightime secret gig in a packed city centre coffee bar they were getting the TV Eye from all the movers and shakers. It’s the kind of gig that is normally really annoying- another pasty faced bunch of hyped up, well connected hipsters getting far too much attention whilst bigger and better bands get ignored.
Wu Lyf, though, transcended the situation. They had great songs, a really original sound and an intensity that came from somewhere else that was not the normal hipster hinterland. I guessed they had a whiff of Nation Of Ulysses about them- that brilliant Washington DC hardcore band who arrived 15 years ago with the same sort of intensity and hardcore inspired manifesto of revolution and off the wall ideas and whilst Wu Lyf may have never heard of the DC mini legends they root back into American hardcore and hop hop and create their own music and culture from those twin scene’s aesthetics. They were an art project who made music, a band you could not see or hear who played secret gigs and let a small drip feed of information out on the internet and it made people even more curious
They quickly became press darlings and avoided the label scramble by signing for publishing and releasing their own album, avoiding any kind of control. The album has become a cult classic, it’s intensity and ideas a key influence on many upcoming bands and has seen Wu Lyf arrive as a potentially big indie band in their own right. This is something that worries vocalist Ellary Roberts as he sits in a city centre cafe writing lyrics and stories and doing interviews, for many bands selling out the Ritz in Manchester is a thrill but when you are trying to do things your own way and outside the system it can also be a sign of the your band’s gradual slide into averageness.
”We don’t want to be a normal rock n roll band, that’s not where we are coming from. I think we spent a long time, I guess, establishing ourselves as what we were. Quite a lot of work went into it. It was making life hard for ourselves in some ways I guess- the way we went about things and the burden of responsibility that was with us continues in producing everything on our own terms. I think were in a good place now, when we started it was all about creativity and making things and now it’s about being in a band. I guess the frame of the game means you end up doing certain things that mean you can’t do as much of the things you really want to do.’
Many bands are quite happy to slide into this trap. The rewards are high and the money and adulation swiftly massages the artistic wounds. Ellary is not resigned to this, though, and is still attempting to find the balance between art and survival.
”â¹Sometimes a band appears that cuts right across everything. In sea of mediocre indie and hipster irony Wu Lyf arrived with a plan, here was a band that had every detail thought out and an art intensity that instantly made them stand out. They even had the their own art foundation, the Lucifer Youth Foundation- a hazy, loose organistion to create stuff. Even their acronym name Wu Lyf, standing for World Unite! Lucifer Youth Foundation, was perfect- it sounded mysterious and yet gang like, it hinted at the kind of sharp mind games played by the afformentioned DC hardcore legends Nation Of Ulysses as well as a nod to the genius of the Wu-Tang Clan- hardcore and hip hop, the two aesthetics that fed in to the band’s DNA from the start.
Wu Lyf emerged a couple of years ago, playing those secret gig at An Outlet coffee bar confounding and confusing and determinedly not playing the game. They did underground hard to find gigs, communicated through Tumblr and were breaking the mould with their approach and their music. Determinedly not part of the Manchester lineage, they were not going to be just another indie band, the band were coming out of a very different culture.
Ellary , a sharp and intense young man with an immaculate quiff, smiles his intense smile.
‘We were into skateboarding and listening to hip hop and hardcore music. We used to go into town and skateboard but were on the fringes of the scene, outsiders. When we started playing music we were never interested in being a generic rock n roll band. We fought against that and even playing this gig at the Ritz makes me worried that we are becoming normal. We always made our music and our artwork on our own terms and no-one else’s and that’s what is important to us.’
It’s this outside spirit that fires the band and makes them fascinating. They cultivated anonymity, they didn’t put themselves all over the internet like every other band. Their songs would appear and disappear, they would put grainy photos, make blurred videos- using the internet to create an accidental mystery and not to give everything away. It was a clever move.
”â¹Too much is out there now, we know too much about everything and it was this air of mystery that made the band interesting plus the fact they could back it up with great music because the crux to all this is the music and here was a band who spent more time on their art than on Twitter. They were not attempting to be mysterious- they were attempting to perfect their craft and the resulting debut album ‘Go Tell Fire To The Mountain’ is a great work, it’s intensity is powerful and its original sound, recorded in Ste peters Chruch hall in Ancoats Manchester, has a powerful spiritual quality to it added by the church hall’s natural, god like ambience. The band have pulled off the rarest of modern tricks and made an album that is totally original.
When they start playing their secret gigs in Manchester they were on quick collision course with the music culture in the city. The band were swiftly lumped in with the museum like pop culture lineage which they quickly rejected.
There is no reason on earth why band has to be geographically or culturally linked to the older know bands from its surrounding area. It was suffocating for the emerging band to be quickly slapped into the endless Mancunian music lineage. They deftly escaped this noose, ruffling a few feathers and were quoted as liking SST records more than Factory.
‘It was not that we didn’t like Factory and listening to some of the records now they sound good, it’s just that SST was more part of what we were into. But it was especially Fugazi that we were into, we liked the way they operated outside the system, they didn’t need the music business and that was influential to us. I think a large part of that was I had never known much about Factory I guess, I learned in the last couple of months more from what people have told me about the label. SST I saw that environment and how that was built it up and the communal aspects to what they did more inspiring to us and Fugazi and their label Dischord was important, I always loved their music and their intent was really solid.’
It’s this intensity and idealism that confuses people, Wu Lyf formed by accident, mates messing around one afternoon writing their key song ‘Heavy Pop’ which expanded itself into a manifesto of kinds, they were an art project that became a band, a skateboard crew that started playing instruments. Informed by American fringe culture they had their own set of cultural codes and ”â¹rules. They could also write great songs.
The first time I saw them that night at An Outlet they were young and angular, playing with the assuredness of a band that has the whole thing thought out. By the time their debut album came out they were the press darlings of the month. It was the realisation of their self belief and their idealism and a platform for them to further not play the game.
It’s this determination not to play the game, as well as their powerful debut, that makes them interesting, two years in and they are still trying to buck the system, even though the system is chipping away at them. Ellary is one of those idealistic young men who worries if the soul of his art is being corrupted, the thrill of making it is tempered with the loss of control and he is trying to work this all out- the temptations of going flat out for the big one are big but this is a proud and intelligent musician who will not comprise his artistic vision, you don’t grow up with Fugazi for nothing.
‘It was so much more about trying to create our own world rather than doing things for the headline- quite often things get narrowed down to the headline and people don’t get the point, the subtleties.’
The upcoming show at the Ritz would normally have a young band very excited, the gig is a veritable stepping stone in the musical ladder. It’s a big gig to pull off, Ellary, of course, is worrying.
‘ I mean doing this show at the Ritz, to be honest, it’s not something I wish we were doing but it sort of makes sense for the size of audience that we have. I think it would have been more exciting to have done something in a smaller venue over two nights. I think in some ways the past couple of years have been good for us on a surface term in that more people know about us but in a emotional and creative level it has sort of gone away from the purity of what we were trying to do at the beginning. There are certain seductions of this particular game and I’m trying to avoid them. I’m looking forward to putting a bookend on this record and approaching everything with a new head.’
Will this be a new music or a new attitude?
‘They are both pretty interlinked…’
Is there a danger that you could become a normal band?
‘I think, for me, the trouble of this year is this danger of becoming a normal band. This time we have done some of the bullshit we have not wanted to do. You make a record you believe in you should make music for people, people should be able to hear the music without maybe getting involved in the bullshit. I think things only have a value if you give them one. We always treated the Wu Lyf project seriously. I never wanted it to interfere with the rest of world but if you want to make rent you have to play the game a little bit,but you have to be disciplined to make sure you don’t get lost. I guess at the same time we are young when we started and we have grown up a bunch this year.’
Do you still think you can beat the system, or will the system always win?
‘I’ve gone from that view to a more separatist view or it’s just you are screaming at a wall, possibly.’
Can you maintain the purity from when you started?
‘I think we all approached it with a purpose that was holy in the creativity. It’s a spontaneous moment when you make something that gets picked up and progresses, in terms of how to appear in this or go how you go down at a gig is seperate. The thing is it becomes how other people consume it more than how you make it. At the beginning it was really close knit but it becomes more and more of a day job, from a passion to something you do every day and by that it loses something. We never had anything written down, like a list of how to operate, I mean we are in a good place financially and everything works, we can carry on, it all works I guess but I debate to myself over the general kind of importance of doing it and getting it right.’
Are Wu Lyf a cult or can they make the breakthrough without being poisoned.
Will you end up being a catalyst band or have big records are can you have both.
‘Can you? I don’t know (laughs”Â¦)’
The debut album was written apparently as the soundtrack to a film that never got made about ‘a kid whose dad is an authoritarian presence ad is an authoritarian presence. To the kid, the dad is the king. And the king stands for an ideal. And the kid sees the superficiality of this ideal, and kills the dad ”âmore metaphorically than anything”â and he’s outlawed from this land. He forms a gang of fellow outlaws, and they come back into town to try and bring it all down, but they get severely put down by all the kings men. Then they regroup, and conclude that you can’t force ideas on people, and that they have to get over themselves. And then they all live happily ever after”Â¦’ an interesting concept that captures the band’s blurred gang like imagery and outsider status.
‘I guess it was an awkward record in a lot of ways, was it a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing or was it was other way round? it was a lot more accessible than it was made to appear . People were more confused by it than was necessary. It’s old to us now, we are still singing the same songs at the moment so we are still in that place, although I still live by what I stood for when we wrote it, it’s what I stood for when I was 19 and, although 2 years is not that long a time, I’m more excited about the future and reinventing the whole thing. I guess as a whole project it was throwing punches and never committing to them. We touched on a lot of things with that record. It was a blank canvas and no one knew what they were doing, even Warren, our manager, who had a past in the music industry, was fresh because this was first band he had managed. There was a lot of finding your feet, working out what you want from it- do you want to make something that lasts and I feels that’s the challenge. ‘
Are the new songs there for the next phase?
‘We got things floating round they are all in different directions, the songs Evans and Tom write together or I write or Tom and I write are heading towards different directions. I want the LYF (the Lucifer Youth Foundation- the umbrella organisation round the band) to be a solid institution that can build and grow like a bank. I think the Wu Lyf is strong and the LYF is more the artistic side of it, artistic in a sense of being visual. It will be interesting where we get to, in all honesty- like all creative things there are a lot of frictions, relationships, but nothing is without a reason.’
I really like intensity of your music, people seem to have difficulty sometimes with music that has any kind of intent these days.
‘I think people confuse intensity with anger and there are moments of anger on the record but that’s not the whole story. I always though the record was uplifting and after releasing it people were saying there is so much anger in it, so much angst. I didn’t realise. I think in terms of music being a positive force in people’s lives.’
It’s both euphoric and melancholic…
‘Mmm I guess the dark sounds have always been more exciting…’
It’s hard to avoid when you are northern with the weather!
‘(Laughs) There’s too much time spent in the rain maybe we ned to move to LA…’
Maybe you would be less misunderstood”Â¦
‘(laughs)..Maybe it’s like with Public Enemy you had the serious side with Professor Griff side and the less serious Flavour Flav side. I think in Public Enemy they balanced that so they could have the hardline and the absurd. Sometimes in a band it seems so important and other times ridiculous. In general it’s something I have never been wholly comfortable with- a of lot of the mystery has been the non acceptance of that, when we are framed by the press bullshit as four indie boys all that stuff never ever worked for me, I see a picture in magazine and think how the hell did it end up like that! Until you know specifically what you are pursuing then you can pursue with all your heart and soul when you are not sure, like paying the Ritz or a photo shoot and not believe in what you are doing then it’s not so good.’
Can Wu Lyf win? the battle for the soul of music is eternal, some bands win by becoming part of the system but retaining their fire, some do it by bucking the system. Wu Lfy are at the point in time where choices have to be made. The self belief and the questioning inteligence of their frontman will make sure they remain uncorrupted though…