If you want to interview UK indie-pop group Wu Lyf, prepare to get taken down a dark alley in the middle of a forest and be forced to conduct the interview, blindfolded, in a confessional hut while the group obscures its faces with bandannas. Or so most of the press on the band would make you believe. The band’s early refusal to speak to the media, release press photos or engage in any other conventional fledgling band tactics earned Wu Lyf both a devoted following and conspiratorial backlash. Were they a cult? An indie boy band carefully orchestrated by marketing executives? Four guys barely out of their teens who liked creating music? None? All?
The truth, as you’d expect, is more prosaic than the myth. Lead singer Ellery Roberts and bassist Tom McClung met while skateboarding at age 12, reconnected at 16 and linked up with drummer Joe Manning and guitarist Evans Kati in their native Manchester. They recorded their debut album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, in an abandoned church and began posting self-produced videos on a website that was more enigmatic than informational. This infectious debut finds Roberts’ penchant for religious iconography alongside oblique references to Kerouac and Kanye West. It yields little in the way of clues as to who they are as a band. It’s apocalyptic pop, with ethereal organs counterbalancing Roberts’ near-indecipherable screech, turning each track into equal parts anthem and rallying cry. Hive caught up with Roberts and McClung in a very un-mysterious Brooklyn pizzeria, to talk religion, band mystique and why so many people hate them.
Why did you decide to record in a church? What did it provide that a studio couldn’t?
Tom McClung: We always knew from the way that our sound worked with reverb that it had to be some sort of big space that we could get some natural sound out of. We tried some horrible places that had some good sound, but you could tell there wasn’t any freedom or acceptance of creativity. Then you go to a church — a place of worship — and it’s inspiring. It was also the best sound we found in the area.
Ellery Roberts: But it was just coincidence that we found it. We weren’t looking for a church; we were looking for a space where we could make the sounds we liked. But when you walked into the place, you could automatically feel it. We may have shied away from the church at first because of all the clichés and connotations that it brings, but it was such a perfect space.
Did you have a conscious plan of what you wanted to do before recording Mountain?
ER: We had the concepts and track list for quite a long time before we had the songs. We had the structure of the record; we wrote it in a narrative sense and approached it as a complete work rather than a bunch of songs thrown together. So we wrote the songs to fit the thematic mood before going into the church to record it, but they came to life more in the church. We played them differently because of the size of the room. I played much more sparsely because the room was so expansive.
But your lyrics have a lot of religious imagery. Was recording in a church just coincidence?
ER: [Long pause] With the religious side, there’s no dodging the family I grew up in. But the nature of education was that even if it was a non-religious school, you say a prayer at the end of the day. And I guess I was developing a fascination and dislike at the same time with the notion of a set of rules that you had to live your life by. When you’re a teenager, you rebel against anything you can get your hands on. We went to a Catholic college just because it happened to be the best college in the neighborhood. We got into trouble and were suspended, but at the same time, it was always an angsty type of rebellion. I became interested in the notion of people having a soul and there being a greater purpose to doing something. After the “God is dead” level of atheism came around, that void that God used to fill got taken up by conspicuous consumption. People no longer believe in God; they believe in money or materialism.
We recently spoke to SBTRKT about how doing too much press gets you labeled a media whore and doing too little is seen as a gimmick. Are you screwed either way?
ER: It gets to a point where people are going to say shit no matter what you do. I’d prefer to be in a position where one side of the fence passionately loves you and the other side passionately hates you than this tepid middle. It seems like the culture now is kicking a hole in anything you do.
TM: At the same time, the only sort of response we’re talking about now is Internet response. We’re not talking about anyone that’s actually come up to us and told us how much of a dick they think we are. We’re talking about a number of people that I can count on my fingers and toes that said specifically bad things. Real music fans don’t do that; they sit at home and listen to records.
But are you worried that all the non-music talk will overshadow the actual album?
TM: Fuck, no! [Shakes his head] There’s nothing anyone can say that can decide someone else’s opinion.
ER: It’s weird the way the media picked up on it and how they snowballed this myth. It’s the myth of the myth that people gravitated to. All we ever wanted to do is make music. We’re not doing this like, “Listen to me! I’ve got something important to say! Shake my hand! I’m an interesting person!” We’re doing this because we made music, people encouraged us to do it and we made a record. That’s what it’s always been to us, whereas the media picked up on one side of it and ran with it and created this hype. A lot of the time, I’ve read articles about me and say, “Well, this has maybe 1% of truth in it.” It’s so diluted from what we are to what they’re making us out to be.
What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve read about yourselves?
ER: There’s general stuff like “They all dress in white and burn crucifixes” which is quite funny, but on the other side is a general cynicism that we don’t do anything ourselves and we’re the product of some great marketing game plan. Which we thought was funny at first because we’re not a particularly “marketable” band. But then you’re like, “We’ve put a lot of work into this and have been working on this thing that we believe in for a long time,” so it gets irritating.
There’s a New York Observer profile that discussed your connection to Manchester ad agency Four23, whose founder is your co-manager, sparking speculation that you were a “product” of the company. Have you read that article?
ER: That piece was the stupidest one because it was like, “I’ve done this great piece of detective work. I found this connection to Four23.” And from the outset, our manager’s information was Warren@Four23.net and we posted that, like, 18 months ago. There’s a lot of bad things in the world that are way more important than us. Why are you wasting your time getting riled up about this? We’re just four people doing something that we enjoy doing.
So you weren’t developing some overarching promulgation of a mystique?
ER: The people I respect artistically are people who just get on with making stuff like Daniel Day-Lewis; the ones who makes the occasional incredible thing and disappear.
TM: It seems today that you should feel privileged to be in every position you’re in, and it’s not like we don’t. But there’s this other aspect of a creative career where you’re not allowed to have any time off. There’s all these rules that would detract from creating a good product at the end of the day, but then you get criticized for it.
ER: When we were discussing our initial website, we said, “Okay, let’s cut all the bullshit and we’ll just put music up” and we won’t do any other kind of bullshit like “Check me out blah blah blah blah.” But I keep seeing stuff all the time like, “This mystery stuff is so contrived. I wish they would just cut the bullshit.”
Your vocals are fairly incomprehensible, though. Do you think that adds to the detachment between the band and listener and contributes to your inscrutability?
ER: People have said to me before, “Really good album, but I haven’t a clue what you’re saying.” I love listening to flamenco music in Spanish and I don’t understand a word of it, but the emotion and feeling of it is more important. But until we started doing interviews and I kept seeing reviews saying people don’t have a clue what I’m saying, I never even considered it. We wanted to make a really raw record; four guys with no formal training and no producer recording in a church. That’s what the record is.
Go Tell Fire to the Mountain is out now digitally and will see a physical release on September 6 via LYF Records.