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Interview: Ellery Roberts of WU LYF

"Nobody has space to dream about things because of a f**king Wikipedia page."


Dave M. Benett/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment

WU LYF arrived online in a splash of hype in 2010. A mysterious Manchester entity whose names and members were unknown, the band —whose acronymic handle stands for World Unite! Lucifer Youth Foundation, and is clearly a Wu-Tang Clan homage— preferred to let a Tumblr speak for them: offering only cryptic poetic riffs, artwork, and a couple of songs. It was a statement of myth-making that doubled as genius marketing: the UK press fell all over themselves to hail the band's greatness. In 2011, WU LYF released their debut LP, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, and quietly renounced their anonymity: the band now publicly outed as Ellery Roberts (organ, vocals), Evans Kati (guitar), Tom McClung (bass), and Joe Manning (drums).

Interview: 2 June 2011

Was WU LYF born as almost an art project, concept first then content after?
"Not really. We've known each other since 1998. We've been friends, and we've played in different bands together at different times. In the summer of 2009, on a very hot day, I happened to play a chord on an organ, Tom played a note on the guitar, and we made that song 'Heavy Pop.' That's the moment that we realised that was our sound, this is what we wanted to do. We were going under a different name [Vagina Wolf] at that point, so we came up with the name WU LYF. And carried on working with 'Heavy Pop' as the mark we were trying to work towards."

Was delivering the band as full-formed ideology an attempt to make a statement?
"For me, I thought about it like I was using Tumblr: you don't need to say everything about yourself. We're not interested in being a generic rock'n'roll band. I don't want to be that; any time it feels like a generic rock'n'roll band I get really down. We made music, we made some artwork. We just wanted to create a place where we could do all that. No one asked us to do anything, so we had no responsibility to anyone."

Was being anonymous a rebellion against the internet's culture of personality?
"I've never been interested in any part of that culture. The overwhelming oversaturation of information has just made everything a little bit more boring; nobody has any space to think and dream about things because of a f**king Wikipedia page. In what we were doing, the anonymity was, at first, going against a certain narcissism we saw operating quite a lot in the music industry. It wasn't a conscious decision where we all sat around the table as said 'here's the plan, guys!' It sort of grew out of the way we are as people, the ideas we have about music, and the music and art that we love."

What art are you talking about, specifically?
"I always say Daniel Day Lewis to a question like this. Just because I really respect the way that he works. It really doesn't seem like he needs to sell his meat; he’s not on the cover of every gossip magazine. He does work of considerable value —well, he did do that one dodgy film, Nine— and keeps himself to himself. That's something we really want to do."

So why give up your anonymity?
"Because it started to become a cliché little gimmick. We were 'the mysterious WU LYF,' and it was this persistent piece of press hype that followed us around. None of us are interested in hype, and none of us are trying to hide. We're not trying to make up some fantastic myth and hide behind it. We've made an album, now, so if anyone wants to ask us questions about us, here I am. I can't pretend that no one should be interested in us; I know I'm interested in people I like. I'm currently reading a Tom Waits biography. But, we just realized that we could keep the hype and the gossip at bay by letting people know who we were."

I interviewed Memory Tapes in 2009 and he said that by attempting to be anonymous he only drew more attention to himself, and he had to 'come out' to return the focus back to the music. Is that the paradox you're experiencing?
"We said more by not saying anything, it seems, than if we'd done ten million interviews. Without saying anything, this hype like built and built and built. All we did was ignore it and carry on, and it snowballed. And it became its own boring clichés: cranky journalists out to reveal 'the truth about WU LYF!'; live reviews where people said things like 'I was expecting them to come out in costumes, with candles'; just all this cheesy stuff. And I feel like we're not those clichés. Well, hopefully not. We probably are."

Were you worried about that English press hype, which often seems like more of a curse than a blessing?
"Yeah, you see it every week, this latest band being given their 15 minutes of fame. But, the way we structured it is: this is our life, something we all really believe in. Something we are genuinely into. It's not just a superficial attempt to get a little bit of fame and a little bit of money. So, we try and do things without really regarding the hype. You can't stop it. The only thing you can do is justify it, I guess, by having some substance to what you do."

Were you worried about having outside forces create the perception —an, in turn, the 'reality'— of you?
"We were hoping to, in some ways, kill the hype, by not engaging with it. By not publicly saying anything. But part of the reason we didn't do any interviews was that we were working on the record, for about two years. We wanted to finish it in an unadulterated state, as a statement of who we were. I don't know if you've heard [Tyler, the Creator's Goblin], but, in it, when he refers to things people said to him on Twitter, I find it really sad. I wanted to keep everything pure and raw, without getting caught up in anything."

That Tyler LP feels like it's taken that instantaneous nature of the internet, where music is consumed and reacted to and disposed of really quickly, and embodied that in the actual content. Like, it's music made for this instant, not for anything beyond that.
"We obviously love Wu-Tang. You can listen to the first Wu-Tang album any time, and it's still an incredible album. But that Tyler album will probably feel dated in like a month. It's the album of May 2011, but maybe it's only ever going to be that. What we're trying to do is something beyond that. We're hoping to make music that's long-lasting."

What hopes or ideas did you have for your album?
"It's a narrative I had for a film I wanted to make. I realized that making the film how I wanted to make it would be a big-budget blockbuster, and I didn't really have the resources to pull that off. So, instead, I tried to work this narrative into the lyrics, and it approached how we made the whole album. It's ten scenes from the one narrative."

What's your movie? Give me the pitch.
"It's about a kid whose dad 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 —more metaphorically than anything— 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. [laughs]"

What was it like trying to convey narrative through song?
"I tried to do it more through the actual emotions than the words. It's not a narrative, lyrically speaking; it isn't a case of the words saying 'then this happened, then this happened, then this happened.' It was more like I wrote it from the perspective of this kid, and explored the emotions that he would be feeling each time these things were taking place. I suppose it's more of a soundtrack to this movie that's in my head. Which is, again, another cliché, isn't it?"

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