meta-scriptWolf Alice On Their Rock Evolution, Why The Studio Is A "Toy Shop" & Their New Album 'Blue Weekend' | GRAMMY.com
Wolf Alice

Wolf Alice

Photo: Jordan Hemingway

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Wolf Alice On Their Rock Evolution, Why The Studio Is A "Toy Shop" & Their New Album 'Blue Weekend'

GRAMMY-nominated English rockers Wolf Alice were bundles of nerves when they cut their first album, but their vibrant, new release, 'Blue Weekend,' displays their facility as studio tinkerers

GRAMMYs/Jun 8, 2021 - 08:19 pm

What's the greatest opening track on a debut album? Is it the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There"? Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle"? N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton"? Whatever's your favorite, chances are it's the sound of a young, hungry artist with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove—not to mention full of jitters about being in a studio.

For better or worse, that's exactly what Wolf Alice sounded like on their 2015 debut album, My Love is Cool—and they readily admit it.

"It's a mixture of nerves, anticipation, excitement, and rage kind of blurring into one project," drummer Joel Amey tells GRAMMY.com. From an adjacent Zoom square, lead vocalist and guitarist Ellie Rowsell echoes his statement. "We're 10 times better than we were when we started off," she says. "For [bassist] Theo [Ellis], Joel and I, we were very new to our instruments, weren't we?" (Guitarist Joff Oddie rounds out the quartet.)

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Flash-forward to 2021, and Wolf Alice are stumping for their third album, Blue Weekend, which dropped June 4 on the British indie label Dirty Hit. On tracks like "Lipstick on the Glass," "How Can I Make It OK?" and "The Beach II," the GRAMMY-nominated alternative rockers' studio vision finally catches up to their ambition—which they were never lacking in the first place. 

Plus, they have a new, crack producer—three-time GRAMMY winner Markus Dravs—on the case. "When you're a garage band at home, you have vague ideas of reverbs and things like that," Amey says with a laugh. "It was really fun to explore those things with people who actually know what they're doing."

Throughout the interview, Amey and Rowsell speak with a sense of awe about the mechanics of music-making, from nicking a Sufjan Stevens guitar sound to paying homage to the Roches' "Hammond Song" to drifting along on an Arthur-Russell-style drum loop.

GRAMMY.com caught up with Wolf Alice's Ellie Rowsell and Joel Amey to discuss the creative trajectory that led to Blue Weekend, why the mercurial-yet-democratic Fleetwood Mac is a fount of inspiration, and how a demo blooms into a full-fledged track.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Wolf Alice | Photo: Jordan Hemingway

Congrats on the new album. How do you feel?

Rowsell: Super excited. It crept up on us, hasn't it?

Amey: It really has, yeah.

Is there a release show of any type? Or are you still doing the virtual thing a year and a half into this situation?

Amey: In the U.K., we can do a socially distanced thing; a very small capacity can come in. I actually went to one last Friday. It was cool to hear live music, but it was sort of strange. It was a bit like an examination hall layout in terms of tables and a rock band playing.

How do you feel the band has developed creatively across your three albums?

Rowsell: God, I feel like it's probably easier for someone else to hear it rather than us. We've been, obviously, fully immersed in being us as a band. But I think we've gotten better, for sure. As musicians, we're 10 times better than we were when we started off. For Theo, Joel and I, we were very new to our instruments, weren't we?

Amey: That's a polite way of describing how we were.

Rowsell: I think we sound better. [Knowing laugh].

How would you describe yourselves at the beginning—perhaps from the standpoint of your limitations?

Amey: I think we've always been in our own world—ambitious, considering what we can do. Maybe when we started—I don't know if "ideas bigger than our stations" is the right phrase—but we've always thought of the little details, I think. My Love is Cool was done in four weeks, and it's a mixture of nerves, anticipation, excitement, and rage kind of blurring into one project.

Then, Visions of a Life—actually, our guitarist, Joff, said something that was kind of interesting: It's quite experimental by our standards. We went on loads of different tangents and we were encouraged to have a real adventure in the studio by Justin [Meldal-Johnsen], our producer, who was super encouraging about going down the rabbit hole of loads of ideas.

I feel like there's a lot of each person's personality in Blue Weekend. We've kind of distilled it down to what we appreciate from songwriting and being in the studio. It's more focused.

On the topic of anticipation and nerves, I think of the Beatles or Joy Division on their debut singles. They sound jittery like they can't believe they're in the studio.

Amey: Yeah, it's like a toy shop for people, isn't it? When you're a garage band at home, you have vague ideas of reverbs and things like that. It was really fun to explore those things with people who actually know what they're doing. [Chuckles.] You get tips!

Which wells were you drawing from for Blue Weekend? Who—or what—were your inspirations, or archetypes in rock history?

Rowsell: [Long ponder.] I think we were thinking a lot about Fleetwood Mac and how, despite being a kind of rock band in many ways—or a guitar band, at least—[they] wrote these massive pop songs. They're a perfect marriage of the two genres, and that's inspiring to me, I think, in the same way that the Band are to us. Yeah, lots of stuff. All over stuff.

I don't feel like there's one thing that's overarching. It's here and there. We take inspiration from multiple different artists.

What are some of your favorite moments on Blue Weekend? Let's start with "The Beach."

Rowsell: Well, I love call-and-response. [Laughs.] So, I'm glad we got call-and-response on the album. When I listen back to that bit of the song, I imagine hundreds of people chanting it. I think we tried to make it sound a bit like that as well. It was always kind of funny! I'm proud of us that we were like, "Yeah, let's make it sound like hundreds of people are chanting this thing!"

Amey: I think it's one of the few songs we have where all four of us recorded vocals.

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How about "Delicious Things"?

Amey: I think "Delicious Things" was a bit of a breakthrough moment for us when recording. We started working with a revered producer, Markus [Dravs]. We didn't do too much hanging out and drinking together. Your first relationship is making something off the bat and hitting "record." That's kind of how we started this.

We got to a stage where we listened back to what we were recording, listened to "Delicious Things" and said, "Maybe we're holding back a bit?" He said, "Less is more," and we had this thing about "Less is more." Then we decided, "No." This was the moment where we plugged in a MIDI keyboard and put on trumpets, put on strings, and just went for it.

I think there was something in the four of us we weren't quite doing up until that point. From then on, we had a new confidence to write the songs in a maximalist way if we wanted to. Not having to strip every song back to, like, four people, which we maybe tried to do at one point.

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Moving on to "Lipstick on the Glass." Any thoughts or stories about that tune?

Rowsell: Yeah, we kind of struggled with this one.

We had a demo version, which was soft and slightly electronic, and we had a full-band version. I think Markus at one point said, "It sounds like Las Vegas," which we weren't really happy about! We got into the studio, split between these two versions. Sometimes, you can only really get the good ideas to come out when you're not supposed to be in the studio.

There was one night when we were supposed to be going home since it was late in the evening. I was talking to Iain [Berryman], the engineer, saying, "Please, can we just throw a few things at it? It's not going to be serious. It's just jokes." That's when you can feel confident enough to make things you were once scared of.

From then on, we kind of thought, "OK, this is starting to take on its own identity." We put strings in there. We programmed stuff into it. We'd just been listening to Sufjan Stevens' song ["Mystery of Love"] from Call Me By Your Name, and we were like, "Put those dry, noodly nylon-string guitar things in it!" Basically, just copy what he does.

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Now, we get to "Smile." I'm curious how that one came about.

Amey: Early on, when we had a Dropbox of ideas, I had an instrumental with that riff. I brought an acoustic guitar and a fuzz pedal and was kind of mucking around and made it into an instrumental—just noodling and trying to practice my production a little bit.

It kind of hung around for a while. Ellie had these amazing lyrics from another demo called "Smile." It became one of those ones where we crossed them together. Then, we took it into the rehearsal room and [it] became much more of a live band song. It existed as more like an electronic piece before.

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How'd you execute "Safe From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)"?

Rowsell: We were kind of inspired by "Hammond Song" by the Roches. It's a brilliant song. I wanted something that had those kinds of dry, up-front, outsung, stepped vocals. We had the two parts, so it's a male-female part, because, obviously, Joel is a great singer.

We then struggled a little bit to know what music should be going on in the background because this is a vocally driven song. Again, Joff's noodling came to mind. He did it on two guitars—kind of a dueling fingerpicking thing—and it was really hard because it was mechanical. It needed to be precisely played.

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Can you talk about "Feeling Myself"?

Rowsell: It came about from a little demo that I had. I didn't really think it was something we'd use. It was just synth-y stuff. The guys really liked it. We worked on it and we kind of fell in love with the middle-eight of it, the music of that and note choices and stuff. It became a favorite moment of ours. I think because of that, we really wanted it on the album. It's a new direction for us that's exciting.

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We're almost done with the record. "No Hard Feelings."

Amey: It was something Ellie sent over as an intro to a longer demo. I remember when I first heard it; it sounded like [it had] a Motown-y, girl-group-y kind of vibe to it. Then, it moved onto a different track. We became really fixated with this intro and tried to do a band version of that intro vibe.

We just tried different things, you know? Happy accidents. Joff just felt inspired and came up with this Arthur-Russell-y loop that just kept going and going. He sent the vocals and we were all visibly moved.

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Last but not least: "The Beach II."

Rowsell: Yeah, this came from one of Joff's demos that he made on his phone, I think. It had some classic Joff sounds in it: big reverb and distorted guitar noises, electronic drums. We really loved it; it sounded quite old school. We were struggling to find a good melody or lyrics over the top of it.

At the very end, while in the studio, I had another crack at it. It took this song to a different place that had much more of a home on the album. It had all the components of Wolf Alice in one tune: The shoegaze-y stuff, the pop stuff, the electronic stuff, the folky stuff, the rock stuff.

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Musicians Mark Stoermer, Brandon Flowers, Ronnie Vannucci and David Keuning of The Killers poses for a portrait during the 2004 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 8, 2004 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Killers

Photo: Frank Micelotta

list

5 Ways ‘Hot Fuss’ Propelled The Killers To Rock Royalty

During the alternative-guitar-band renaissance of the early 2000s, the Killers slugged out a debut album that’ll stick with us forever. Here are five reasons ‘Hot Fuss’ catapulted the Vegas favorites to the top.

GRAMMYs/Jun 14, 2024 - 05:19 pm

They came out of their cage, and now they're doing just fine. 

In an era of stiff competition, from the White Stripes to the Strokes, the Killers could have gotten lost in the shuffle. But with 2004's Hot Fuss, the Brandon Flowers-led, Vegas-based rock band essentially emerged fully formed, with a debonaire mystique, a raided new wave record collection (think the Cure and Duran Duran), and a knack for sky-high hooks. They didn't just nail the songs, and charisma, on the first go — they created one of the most timeless albums of their generation. 

In the 20 years since, chances are "Mr. Brightside" has gotten maddeningly stuck in your head at least once. But that's just the tip of the iceberg: Hot Fuss is teeming with cryptic one-liners, sticky melodies and a specifically aughts sort of emotional abandon.

Today, the Killers are one of the biggest rock bands of the 21st century, with five GRAMMY nominations and more than 28 million records sold worldwide. Here are five aspects of Hot Fuss that helped them break into the stratosphere.  

It's The Result Of A Completely Scrapped First Attempt 

Sometimes, the first thought isn't the best thought. The Killers were full steam ahead on their debut album when Flowers hit a major snag: a little album called This Is It by the Strokes came out. 

"When we put it on in the car, that record just sounded so perfect," Flowers admitted to NME in 2012. "I got so depressed after that, we threw away everything, and the only song that made the cut and remained was 'Mr. Brightside.'" 

How would the Killers' legacy have changed without classics like "Somebody Told Me" and "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine"? We'll never know — but the band (and the world) is likely glad they gave Hot Fuss a second shot. 

Brandon Flowers Is A Superb Lyricist 

Did you know Hot Fuss has an extended murder narrative? Well, in two songs: "Midnight Show" and "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine." (The third act, "Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf," was relegated to their 2007 B-sides and rarities disc, Sawdust.) 

Outside of sprawling concepts, Flowers' sneaky prowess as a lyricist is all over Hot Fuss, from sticky alliteration ("Turning saints into the sea/ Swimming through sick lullabies") to masterful use of negative space. 

Exhibit A is "Smile Like You Mean It": "Someone is calling my name/ From the back of the restaurant/ And someone is playing a game/ In the house that I grew up in/ And someone will drive her around/ Down the same streets that I did." By erasing the specifics, and only providing a framework of memory, the picture is ever more elusive and intriguing. 

The Album Is Front-Loaded With Five Bangers 

Sure, some tracks on Hot Fuss, like "Change Your Mind" and "Believe Me Natalie," are relatively minor. 

But with absolute napalm across the first five tracks — "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," "Mr. Brightside," "Smile Like You Mean It," "Somebody Told Me," "All These Things That I've Done" — it's actually kind of a relief to get a sleeper album track, that reveals its qualities slower. 

No matter your take on the rest of Hot Fuss, or their discography, the fact remains undeniable: they came in swinging. 

They Kept The Demos Intact For Raw Impact 

The Killers and the Boss have crossed paths a time or two — and they made a Springsteenian move when they used demos as the final tracks. It worked, imbuing Hot Fuss with a certain spontaneity and energy. 

And because these Hot Fuss tracks were meant to comprise a demo, "We never thought [these songs] would be on a record." drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. later admitted. Talk about a turn of events: what could have been a collection of scratch tracks would help define a generation. 

"Mr. Brightside" Took On A Life Of Its Own 

"Mr. Brightside" has undeniably become the Killers' signature song — a staple not only at their concerts, but at bars and karaoke joints around the world. And once social media came along, it inspired a cornucopia of memes: even snippets of lyrics, like "Comin' out of my cage" and "It started out with a kiss, how did it end up like this?" have become miniature cultural forces. 

Aside from Flowers' almost unwaveringly single-note verse melody, the song's odd structure — the second verse is the same as the first — has also been ripe for humor: one favorite meme takes you into the fictional writer's room when that decision was made. 

Whether for rock 'n' roll transcendence, or just a nostalgic laugh, revisit Hot Fuss as it turns 20 — and smile like you mean it. 

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Wallows Press Photo 2024
Wallows

Photo: Aidan Zamiri

interview

Wallows Talk New Album 'Model,' "Entering Uncharted Territory" With World Tour & That Unexpected Sabrina Carpenter Cover

On the heels of releasing their amped-up third album, 'Model,' alt-rock trio Wallows detail how their "very unabashed" approach has expanded — and landed them in arenas for the first time.

GRAMMYs/May 30, 2024 - 07:11 pm

Over the past five years, Dylan Minnette, Cole Preston and Braedan Lemasters — together, known as alternative rock band Wallows — have acutely constructed a sonic landscape of earworm guitar hooks, snappy drums and sing-along lyrics. And their third album, Model, helps lift their career into a new sphere of guitar-driven stardom.

Wallows' growth from the indie-pop breakouts of 2019's Clairo-assisted "Are You Bored Yet?" to full-fledged alt-rock stars is abundantly clear across Model's 12 tracks. Produced by GRAMMY-winning alt-rock whisperer John Congleton (who also helmed Wallows' 2019 debut album, Nothing Happens), Model amps up their vintage-meets-contemporary sound. It's an album that sounds perfectly written for arenas — and that's by design. 

On The Model World Tour, which kicks off on Aug. 6, the trio will hit arenas and amphitheaters in North America, Europe and the UK, and Australia and New Zealand, including iconic venues like Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks and The Forum. With the tour in mind, they wrote wavy melodies fit for the masses to sing along, like on the racing "Your Apartment" or the howling chorus of "You (Show Me Where My Days Went)."

If the polished sound of Model sounds like the work of a band who has sharpened their talents for decades, that's because it is. Though they made their official introduction as Wallows with the 2018 EP Spring, Minnette, Preston and Lemasters — all in their late 20s — have been performing together since they were just 11 years old.

As Preston asserts, their longtime partnership has resulted in "this kind of synergy happening." It's seemingly helped them become more vulnerable, too, as Model sees the Wallows guys singing overtly about love for the first time, like on lead single "Calling After Me": "I knew the feeling would be forming/ After I took a look into your eyes/ But are you ready for it, darling?"

In celebration of the release of Model, Minnette, Lemasters and Preston mused to GRAMMY.com about their creative journey, why they recently became the unlikely scorn of Sabrina Carpenter fans, and how they're "filling a space" in mainstream alt rock.

You're about to embark on an arena tour, playing venues like Madison Square Garden and The Forum for the very first time. Does this feel like a new phase in your evolution as a band?

Braeden Lemasters: Yeah, I think it does. When we started the band seven years ago, when I look back it's been a very natural progression; it's not like we went straight from 200 capacity clubs to arenas. 

We've gone through the stages and right growth, and now we're entering this uncharted territory. We actually haven't even opened up at these venues for anyone, so it'll be our first time playing an arena. We have no idea what to expect.

Model as an album sounds bigger than your past ones, especially songs like "Anytime, Always" which may sonically fit right in at an arena with its sing-along hook. Did you have the arena tour in mind when you were working on Model?

Cole Preston: Yeah, this record was the first time we did know the tour routing [during the album process]. It didn't necessarily change the way that we worked; we always adapted a similar approach to writing where we naturally want it to be catchy and full, which all lends itself to the live show. But understanding that we're going to have this level of a moment, we'd need to make a record that represents that moment that belongs there.

You guys are an alternative rock three-piece, which is rare in today's musical climate. Does it seem that way to you?

Dylan Minette: Yeah, I definitely feel like there's a space where we're sort of filling [with] the way our music is and sounds. There's other bands that are playing the same rooms and can, but all of us feel pretty different from one another. 

Our music is very unabashed, and there's nothing we're trying to subdue or be cool, or worry about it sounding too pop. I'm not saying we're the only ones doing that, because that's obviously not true. But our favorite bands growing up — like Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire or The Killers — weren't afraid to go for it and let the music be larger than life. There used to be a lot more bands that just dominated and went for it, so we try to make sure we're filling that space that isn't really being filled right now. 

Were you guys always interested in this genre? I would think for the majority of people from your generation, the inclination would be to do bedroom pop  or electronic music, and not to start a band.

Lemasters: The interest for me stems from my dad, who was a guitar player in Ohio  local bands. I alway thought it was so normal; I'd be 5 years old and my dad would be playing a stratocaster around the house and listening to the Beatles. He bought me a guitar when I was really young and taught me how to play, so I've had this connection to these classic bands. 

When I met Dylan, we bonded over that, because he also liked that music at a young age. I think it was rare for a kid our age to like that kind of music. Cole was also just a very talented musician at a young age too. So we all loved band music at a young age and wanted to form one; there was no other reason than that. We didn't have to search out our passion for it. It was already there.

Speaking of, I've loved your distinctive covers, from "My Worst Enemy" by Lit (which you put a melancholy look at it) to "Espresso" just recently. What's the key to a solid cover and how do you decide what songs to put your spin on it?

Minette: We definitely don't have songs in our pocket. We always try to do something unexpected or unconventional to get people talking about it, otherwise what's the point? 

Cole recommended "Espresso," which I hadn't heard at the time — but if he's saying this new, popular song is good, I trust him. When I listened to it, I thought it'd be great, and when we worked on the first version it had a drum machine and was funkier. When we stripped it back and it became more emo, it was hilarious. 

Though there are some Sabrina Carpenter fans who are really mad I attempted to sing that song. "You could never be Sabrina!" I'm like, "I know I can never be Sabrina!" But you know what? She texted me recently and gave the seal of approval. That's all we needed.

Since you've all been playing together in some capacity since you were 11, what's kept you together all these years?

Preston: When we were young, our brains were super mushy and we all had a big influence on each other as people. We're all very different now as people in a lot of ways, but we all know each other enough to predict how someone will feel or react about something. 

So there's this kind of synergy happening because, since we were 11, we were practicing every day and performing original music, and we just didn't stop. By the time we became Wallows officially, we had been a band for seven or eight years at that point. 

Speaking of, I know you recently connected with the person who indirectly inspired your name? What's the story behind that?

Minette: So Wallows was named after a skate spot in Hawaii on Oahu, which we first heard about from the video game Tony Hawk's Underground where it was part of the Hawaii map. Braeden played it growing up and at a certain point he said it'd be a cool album title. Eventually, when we were thinking of band names, we realized Wallows would be a great name. 

Last week, we were on "The Today Show" and they said "We have a surprise for you!" And it was a message from Tony Hawk, which was so full circle. To go from being kids with all ambitions and dreams, and now Tony Hawk is surprising us — it was crazy. If our 13-year-old selves were experiencing this, that'd be insane.

Model was produced by John Congleton, who was also behind your first album. What brought you together again for this third record?

Lemasters: When we first started making music, we worked with John; he made some St. Vincent records and we really respected his work. We were just naive enough to be so excited to go with him and we didn't meet anybody else at the time. He did our first EP and first album. There's something really special about that connection and bond you make, that first time. 

For our second album, we worked with Ariel Rechtshaid, which was incredible and who we always wanted to work with. When we decided to work on Model, we didn't know who to go with, but we went in with Congleton again to record some demos for no project at all. We asked him what he pictured for us regarding a new album, and everything he said is exactly how we were feeling. 

I also always admired an artist working with a producer multiple times, like Nigel Godrich with Radiohead or George Martin with the Beatles; there's a camaraderie where you always know where you've been. So it was a no-brainer to go with John again for Model. I think it's our best work yet, and best production yet, and that's largely because of his passion for the project. 

What's the most gratifying part of the musical process as an artist: writing and producing, or going out and performing them on tour?

Lemasters: It's such a hard question, but my answer would be it's whatever process you're currently experiencing. Writing and recording is so exciting, but going on tour and seeing people sing the songs is the most rewarding thing. I know that's the most cop-out answer. 

Does it change over time?

Minette: Exactly. It's a cycle, when you're on tour you're thinking, "I can't wait to go back into the studio" by the end for sure. I'm interested to see what happens when time slows down to step away from both and take a step back. I don't think we're near that, but I'm already thinking ahead to the next album, and we haven't even toured this album yet! 

Right now, I'm more excited for this tour than ever, but I'm also more nervous. It all adds to the excitement and intrigue of it.

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Twenty One Pilots performing in 2022
Twenty One Pilots perform at GPWeek Festival in 2022.

Photo: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images

feature

Twenty One Pilots' Road To 'Clancy': How The New Album Wraps Up A Decade-Long Lore

Three years after 'Scaled and Icy,' Twenty One Pilots' seventh studio album is here. Dig into the rock duo's journey to 'Clancy,' and how it further showcases their knack for vivid world-building.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 07:28 pm

Long before Twenty One Pilots developed a cult following, the Columbus, Ohio natives were determined to not be put into a box. From their first EP, 2009's Johnny Boy, they've blended elements of emo, rap, alt-pop, electronica, incorporating hardcore and hip-hop into their shows. "No one knew where to put us," drummer Josh Dun told USA Today in 2014. "But we've approached live shows as a way to build something from nothing."

In the decade since, the band's sheer determination and eclectic onstage personality have made them one of the biggest rock groups of their generation. They're equally as spontaneous and intriguing in their music, building an entire world through dynamic soundscapes and visuals — and their new album, Clancy, ties all of it together.  

As the band revealed in a press release upon announcing the album in March, Clancy "marks the final chapter in an ambitious multi-album narrative" that began with Blurryface in 2015. But it certainly doesn't feel like an ending; Clancy further expands on the theatrical style and eclectic sound they've showcased from the start, offering both a resolution and an evolution.

While the makings of the signature Twenty One Pilots aesthetic began with its original formation as a trio — lead singer Tyler Joseph and his friends Nick Thomas and Chris Salih — it truly took shape when Dun replaced Thomas and Salih in 2011. Dun and Joseph had a common goal to re-formulate the way songs and shows were crafted; the drummer utilized samples and backing tapes at their gigs, helping the band dive deeper into their alternative style by fusing everything from reggae to pop together.

As a newly formed duo, Twenty One Pilots issued their album Regional at Best in 2011 — their last release before they signed to a major label (though, as they told Huffpost in 2013, they since consider the record a "glorified mixtape"). After significant social media buzz and selling out a show at Newport Music Hall in Columbus, the duo was courted by a dozen record labels, which set the stage for their big break.

"We went from no one in the industry caring to all of the sudden it was the hot thing for every label, independent and major, to be interested in some way," Joseph told Columbus Monthly in 2012 upon signing to Fueled by Ramen, which the singer said they were drawn to because they were able to retain "creative control" — a factor that would become increasingly more important with each release. 

Their 2013 album Vessel — which featured a combination of new and re-recorded songs from Regional At Best —spawned the band's first charting single, "Holding On to You," a rap-meets-pop track that oscillates from sensitive indie ballad to energetic anthem. Not only had they begun making a mark commercially, but it seemed to be the album that Twenty One Pilots felt they were hitting their stride creatively, too: "I know some people might not like this, but I kind of view Vessel as our first record," Joseph told Kerrang!at the time.

Though the character "Clancy" first came about with 2018's Trench, Twenty One Pilots actually introduced the world that Clancy would eventually live in with 2015's Blurryface, which focused on a titular character who embodies depression and anxiety. "It's a guy who kind of represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around me, are insecure about," Joseph said of his alter-ego in a 2015 interview with MTV.

To convey the "feeling of suffocation" caused by insecurities from what he creates, Joseph began wearing black paint on his neck and hands in music videos and on stage to represent the "Blurryface" character. As Joseph told the Recording Academy in 2015, the "common thread" of all of the songs on Blurryface was that Joseph's alter-ego would be defeated, and each song wrestled with the dichotomy between darkness and optimism.

While Vessel kickstarted the band's commercial success, Blurryface saw their popularity explode and resulted in the band's best-selling single, the eerie rap-rock anthem "Stressed Out." The commercial success of Blurryface helped their hot streak continue into 2016 with the release of "Heathens." While the song served as the first single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, its haunting production fits right into the world the pair had begun building with Blurryface. Their acclaim continued to grow, with Twenty One Pilots earning their first GRAMMY in 2017 for "Stressed Out" in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Category — and, in line with their affinity for stunts, dropping their pants as they accepted their award.

Ahead of the release of their 2018 concept album Trench, the lore surrounding "Clancy" really began. Twenty One Pilots began leaving clues for fans on a website known as DMAORG, which featured black-and-white images and letters from "Clancy," who ultimately became the protagonist of the album. Twenty One Pilots fans (often referred to as the"Skeleton Clique") began clamoring to deduce puzzling clues and posting their theories about the narrative's endgame online.

With Trench, they found more characters and a deeper narrative. The overall album depicts "a world where nine dictatorial bishops keep the inhabitants (Tyler included) of a fictional place named Dema from escaping its controlling clutches, with the help of the Banditos — a rebel organization (featuring Josh)." On a larger scale, the album grapples with mental illness, suicide and an expansion on Joseph's insecurities from Blurryface

But Trench isn't one cohesive story; rather, it's a series of songs with clues embedded within. For instance, in "Morph," the character Nico is introduced, who is also the subject of "Nico and The Niners." From there, fans gleaned that Nico was one of nine bishops controlling the citizens of Dema, and those nine bishops were represented by each of the songs on Blurryface. The bombastic "Pet Cheetah" references that the house has vultures on the roof which alludes to it — and Joseph's home — being Dema. 

As with Blurryface, visuals became an integral part of the album cycle. This time, they used them to illustrate life in the dystopian Dema, which personifies depression through the trilogy of music videos for "Levitate," "Nico and The Niners" and "Jumpsuit." While Joseph's black-painted neck and hands signaled the Blurryface era, dark green clothing marked with yellow tape signaled the Trench era. During this time, the "Clancy" character remained shrouded in mystery — though through videos and letters shared by the band, fans theorized that it is an opposing force to "Blurryface."

By the time Twenty One Pilots' 2021 album, Scaled and Icy, came around, fans quickly noticed that it paid homage to "Clancy" as an anagram for "Clancy is dead," while also acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic as a shortened phrase for "scaled back and isolated." While Twenty One Pilots could have leaned into the harrowing events of lockdown, they instead chose to focus on what has driven the band itself, the power of imagination — something that has been behind much of the band's work since Blurryface.

With the album came three singles — the propulsive "Shy Away," the heartwrenching banger "Choker" and the funk-pop-tinged "Saturday — which were recorded when the duo was working virtually during the pandemic. Unlike the past two projects which grappled with this doomed slant, Scaled and Icy pivoted toward a sunnier sound, signaling a shift in the narrative. But it didn't mean the dark world of Blurryface and Trench were completely in the past; upon Scaled and Icy's release, Joseph revealed to Apple Music that there would be "one more record" and "an explanation and book end" before moving onto another story.

Three years following the release of Scaled and Icy, fans began receiving letters from the "Sacred Municipality of Dema" — a reference to the fictional city featured on Trench, signaling what appeared to be a new era diving deeper into the band's lore. Since the previous record featured an anagram about "Clancy" in its title, it seemed natural that the next album would be named after the character. 

"'Clancy' is our protagonist in this story we've been telling, stretched out over the last several records. 'Clancy' is the type of character who, for a long time, didn't know if he was a leader or not, didn't want to take that responsibility," Joseph told BBC Radio earlier this year.

As the singer had hinted in the Scaled and Icy era, Clancy brings fans back to the darker narrative that began with Blurryfacet. After Joseph's character escapes Dema a handful of times, joins a rebellion, then is captured again, he finally has the same abilities as the bishops and aims to free the people of Dema. The album attempts to answer a few conceptual questions along the way.

Clancy's blistering first single, "Overcompensate" is inherently hopeful, and answers the long-lingering question fans have been wondering: Who is "Clancy"? According to the psych-funk number, it's been Joseph all along ("If you can't see, I am Clancy/ Prodigal son, done running, come up with Josh Dun.") As Joseph further explained to BBC Radio, "[With] 'Overcompensate', there's a bit of a confidence and swagger in it that the character needed to embody in order to take on the new role in the story we've been telling, and Clancy is gonna rise up as that person."

But much of the album focuses less on the literal lore, instead tackling the overarching themes of its counterparts: Joseph's struggles with mental health. Despite the darker, anxious nature of the album's lyrics, the majority of Clancy has a self-assured breeziness to it, jumping off of the upbeat Scaled and Icy sound. 

On the ballad-like closer, "Paladin Strait" — named after a fictional body of water off the coast of Dema —Twenty One Pilots really digs into the narrative of "Clancy" the character in a literal way again. What's revealed is the final battle between "Clancy" and "Blurryface" with no apparent winner — alluding to the idea that there is not necessarily a triumph over depression. In the final line, the band offers a callback to a lyric from Blurryface: "So few, so proud, so emotional/ Hello, Clancy."

While the ending may remain ambiguous, it may not be a coincidence that Twenty One Pilots postponed Clancy's release date by a week (from May 17 to May 24) in order to finish filming music videos for each of the tracks, all of which were unveiled upon the album's release. So, there's still hope that fans will find out definitively what happened to "Clancy" — or maybe it means his story isn't completely finished. 

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Photo of Lenny Kravitz wearing dark black sunglasses and a black leather jacket.
Lenny Kravitz

Photo: Mark Seliger

interview

Feel Lenny Kravitz's 'Blue Electric Light': How The GRAMMY-Winning Rocker Channeled His Teen Years For His New Album

'Blue Electric Light' is a laser beam through Lenny Kravtiz's musical ethos: a rocking, impassioned and defiantly Lenny production. The Global Impact Award honoree discusses his first album in six years, and the flowers he's received along the way.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 02:22 pm

Lenny Kravitz is a vessel — a divining rod of creative direction. 

"I just do what I'm told. I'm just an antenna. So what I hear and what I receive, I do," he tells GRAMMY.com.  It's with that extra-sensory, spiritual guidance that Kravitz created his latest album, Blue Electric Light. "I just saw and felt this blue light — electric blue, almost neon light —radiating down on me."

Out May 24, Blue Electric Light is Kravtiz's first LP in six years and fittingly flits through the rocker's cosmology: Arena-ready booty shakers like "TK421" (the music video for which features the nearly 60-year-old unabashedly shaking his own booty), Zeppelin and Pearl Jam-inspired rockers like  "Paralyzed," and shared humanity-focused groovers like "Human." There's plenty of '80s R&B sensibility throughout, giving  Blue Electric Light a perfectly timed, timeless feeling.

It's as if Kravitz took a tour through his own discography, landing right back where he started: In high school. In fact, two of the album's tracks — "Bundle of Joy" and "Heaven" — were written when the four-time GRAMMY winner was still a teenager. While Kravitz's latest may lean into the sounds of his young adulthood, the album's underlying themes remain consistently spiritual, intimate and emotional. "My main message is what it has always been, and that is love," Kravitz told GRAMMY.com in 2018. And by staying true to himself and this message of love, Lenny Kravitz is thriving.

"I've never felt better mentally, spiritually, and physically. I've never felt more vibrant," he says today.

Kravtiz has also had a big year. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, during 2024 GRAMMY week, was honored with the Global Impact Award at Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors. At the ceremony, Kravtiz was lauded for his work with his Let Love Rule foundation, and his iconic discography celebrated in a performance by Quavo, George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.

Reflecting on his achievements, Kravitz remains humble. "Success is wonderful, but I only want success by being me and doing what it is that I'm hearing, as opposed to following something or a formula."

Ahead of releasing Blue Electric Light into the world — just a few days shy of his 60th birthday on May 26— Lenny Kravitz spoke with GRAMMY.com about revisiting his past, following his gut, and stopping to smell the flowers.

You haven't released a record in about six years. Why did you feel now was the time to put new music out, and what was inspiring you?

Well, it was just by virtue of what was going on. So I released [2018's Raise Vibration and], I toured for two years. Then COVID hits two and a half years [later]. It wasn't like I went away or wasn't inspired. I had a whole other year planned. I was going to tour for three years on that last album.

But [when] COVID happened, the world shut down and I got stuck in the Bahamas for a couple of years and a half. And so during that time I was just being creative. I [wrote the whole album] during that time and a little bit afterwards; [I wrote] just maybe two songs afterwards.

When I finished, then I had to figure out when I wanted to put it out and how. I did the Baynard Rustin song ["Road to Freedom" from the Academy Award-nominated film Rustin], and then I ended up pushing my album so I could fully promote the film and the legacy of Bayard Rustin.

Anyway, here we are. Everything happens in the time that it should, and I'm looking forward to putting this out and getting back on the road.

I read that this record was like an album that you didn't make in high school and it has this very young spirit. What took you to that place?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I released a book called Let Love Rule, and it ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. It was about my life from birth to the first album [1989's Let Love Rule], so around 24 years old. In this book, I spent a lot of time in my teenage years when I was developing. That came out at the beginning of the pandemic and I was doing a lot of press for it.

And I think because I was exploring that time so much when I was writing the book and then talking about that time so much when I was promoting the book, it just came out. And it was a time in my life that I never really celebrated. I never put music out at that time.

When I found my sound [on] Let Love Rule, all that material I was working on at that time got buried before. And so I just went to that place. I didn't plan on it, it just happened. In fact, two songs on the record ["Bundle of Joy" and "Heaven"] are from high school. 

So it's a blend of where I am now and where I was then. And it's a really fun record and I had a really beautiful time making it. It's a celebration, and it's sensual and sexual and spiritual and social and it hits all the marks. I'm looking forward to getting out there.

You were obviously deep in your memories, and it sounds like you were probably listening to a lot of Prince in high school.

There's a lot of things. There's a blend of '80s technology and drum machines, and real instruments and synthesizers that I pulled out from then. During that time, yeah, I was listening to a lot of Bowie. I was listening to a lot of Prince, a lot of Rick James, a lot of just soul and R&B in general, and rock.

Are there any songs on the record that you are particularly proud of or that are really meaningful to you?

All of them. I hear it all as one piece. So it's just one flow of consciousness, but I'm really proud of the record. 

One of my favorite tracks would be the opening track, "It's Just Another Fine Day in this Universe." I just think it's such a vibe and I love the way the chorus makes me feel. I think "Stuck in the Middle" is really pretty and sensual.

Speaking of vibes, when I'm listening to the record, it feels very hopeful. Is that generally how you've been feeling or how you go through the world these days?

I'm pretty optimistic. But now even more than ever, just on a personal level, I've never felt better mentally, spiritually, and physically. I've never felt more vibrant and I'm becoming more comfortable within myself in my skin and in my place. 

I've learned that listening to that voice inside of me and sticking to what it is that was meant for me, my direction, has paid off and it feels good.

What do you attribute that growth and that deep comfort to, both personally and creatively?

Just [having] time to see the results. I'm blessed to live, to see the results of being faithful to what it is you've been given and told to do by the creative spirit, by God. People have always been trying to push me in different directions: "Do this, do that, follow this, go this way. This is what's happening right now." Follow the trends because they're looking at it as a business and they're trying to make money and have success.

Yes, success is wonderful, but I only want success by being me and doing what it is that I'm hearing, as opposed to following a formula that one thinks would work. Because once you follow that, you're already late, it's already happened. And I am not about being late. 

I don't mind setting the tone or the trend and being early and not getting recognized for it at the time. Because I'm not doing it for the reason of receiving accolades or whatever. I'm doing it to be expressive and to truthfully represent myself.

I think that's a fantastic way to be. People come around eventually, right?

Yes. I've been reading reviews of my heroes back in the day, and I remember seeing Led Zeppelin reviews just ripping them to shreds. Led Zeppelin [are] praised [for] being classic and genius, but at one time they were s—, somebody said. So if you live long enough and you keep doing what you're doing, if you're doing the right thing and what you're supposed to be doing, you'll see that shift in people's opinions. 

Not that that matters, but when you see it, it feels good because you know that you did it the way you were supposed to do it. 

I hear a little bit of that defiance on this record too, that and the centering of your own truth on "Human." Can you maybe tell me a little bit about that track and how it came to you?

Well, it just came like they all come. So I hear it and I think to myself, Okay, that's interesting. That has this real pop anthem, very uplifting feeling. [The song] speaks to us as spiritual beings having this human existence on this planet.

We are at our most powerful when we are authentic to ourselves. When you're authentic to who you are, you're shining and you represent what it is that you're meant to represent. And so the song just speaks on that, and really using this human existence to learn and to walk in your lane to reach your destiny.

In life since we've been born, we've been told what to do and how to do it: "Don't go this direction, go that way," and "No, don't do this, do that because this is the way it's done" or "This is what's safe." And we're all born with a gift; we're all born with a direction. And we don't all hit the marks because sometimes we don't accept what our gift is. Or we're too busy looking at others and what their gift is and we want what they have, and we leave behind what we were given. We go chase something that is not for us; it's that other person's calling.

So the more we shed all of that and really just walk in our lane, the better. And I am enjoying this journey of humanness and learning and growing, falling, getting up, climbing up the mountain, falling again, getting back up, continuing up. That's what it's about. It's not about how many times you fall... It's about how you get up and keep going. We're all here to live and learn and, hopefully, love. 

I'm curious if the title of the record translates to this idea at all. Does Blue Electric Light manifest in any real way to you as a spiritual guide?

To me, it's a feeling. I just saw and felt this blue light — electric blue, almost neon light —radiating down on me, and that light is life. It's God, it's love, it's humanity, it's energy. And just metaphorically, that's what that represents to me.

Right on. To take it away a little bit from the existential and the spiritual, you just received the Global Impact Award at the 2024 GRAMMYs. You said you're not doing these things for accolades, but I'm curious how it felt to be recognized for this aspect of your work something that isn't inherently musical that's a little more outside yourself.

Where I am in life right now is, if someone's going to hand you flowers, then stop, smell them and enjoy them. And that's what I'm doing. 

I make my art because I make my art and for no other reason, but when handed these flowers, I'm appreciative. I'm grateful, and I will enjoy them because I spent my whole career not doing that. I was always moving so fast and [was] not only concerned with the art and moving forward, that I didn't enjoy those moments when you get awards or things. So I made a promise to myself years ago, moving forward when the flowers are delivered, that I will stop and smell them, take a moment, breathe, and then move forward. 

And that's what I'm doing, because every day of life is beautiful. And when you can celebrate, why not celebrate?

Amen to that. It's that presence of mind and spirit that you have been talking about this whole time and seems to have flowed through your artwork as well. With regard to the work with your Let Love Rule foundation, are there any projects that you would love to tackle next?

There's so many. From some things I've been doing with friends, like building certain foundations in Africa with someone that's on the ground there, doing it firsthand with orphanages in schools, to the medical situation in the Bahamas, to continue providing medical and dental care for free to the people so they can have their basic health issues taken care of. 

And then also working with kids in the arts and helping to give them a foundation to work from. These are things that I'm interested in.

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