WU LYF Explains Their Mystery (VIDEO)

07/27/2011 06:28 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2011

Originally posted on Spinner

As the first half of 2011 wound to a close, WU LYF (World Unite/Lucifer Youth Foundation), seemed poised to become one of the year's most media-hyped bands. The press, British in particular, wove a quilt of intrigue around the young Manchester upstarts, veiling them in minor myth and legend. One overarching reason spurred this zeitgeist: In an age of media availability, when negligible details of artists' lives can be accessed at a moment's notice, when artists personally offer these details online, WU LYF kept their mouths shut.

The band came off as a mysterious and volatile collective a la Wu Tang Clan.They had an enigmatic website complete with scattered literary, artistic, and historical references, engaging collages and beautiful music videos. WU LYF universally denied interviews and record deals; both poured in relentlessly. They snubbed Michel Gondry, who asked to direct a video for them. The only promotional photographs of the band depicted nine bandit-masked figures (they are a four-piece) shrouded by smoke in an empty car park.

The press devoured every morsel of information that materialized about WU LYF and in the remaining void they built towers of speculation. The less the band said, the more the press said for them. It was an accidental masterstroke.

Outwardly, WU LYF seems ripe for comparison to Odd Future (aka Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All or OFWGKTA), another hyperbolic, acronymic group of petulant kids. Yet it is worth noting that the WU LYF credo is more of a unifying call to arms than an anarchic one. One spin of 'We Bros' is enough to see that they are more about fellowship than nihilism.

Their inescapable backstory should be of secondary importance when considering their music. They eschewed media attention to focus on writing and recording their debut album, not as part of a grand marketing strategy or statement of political intent.

"When we started I guess we were almost naïve enough to think that you could just make music and not have to explain yourself all the time," frontman and organist Ellery Roberts tells Spinner.

Before the release of their debut album, 'Go Tell Fire to the Mountain,' last month, the band had limited material to discuss. They weren't making themselves scarce -- they simply didn't have much to talk about. Even now, their live show stops after 12 songs (the length of their album) "due to lack of songwriting," as Roberts puts it.

They give interviews these days, but those have done little to change public perception beyond debunking some of the apocrypha (They hawked a limited run of their demo to A&R scouts at 50 pounds a pop, so the spurious legend goes). "What you say is maybe not always what you mean," says Ellery. "When it's written down I think 'Well, that's not what I mean,' but that's what I've said." It's just as well then that the band seems less concerned with what they say than how they say it.

Their songs, which scan as a hybrid between post-punk, anthemic indie-rock and tribal chants, indicate WU LYF's keen understanding of delivery. The first thing one is bound to notice about WU LYF's music is Roberts's vocal articulation. It is a patchwork of roars, rumbles and howls, and approximates the sound of someone speaking in tongues. "The way I kind of approached the lyrics was when we'd play I'd have phrases, but I'd sing melodically," he explains. "I'd sing rhythms and sing a sound, I wouldn't have a bunch of lyrics." This may well turn away listeners looking for easily digestible clarity -- his voice sounds like gravel churning in a Cuisinart. Ellery Roberts is not concerned with explication; he is concerned with expression.

Going into the album, he already had a sweeping narrative scheme, one that he had originally intended as a screenplay. Roberts proceeded to explode this narrative and translate it outside the realm of language, extricating the thematic weight from the rubble. What's left is the vocalist's equivalent of Impressionism. His colorful shouts coalesce in service of a more visceral truth.

A visit to WU LYF's website reveals a complete set of words for the album, written after the recording. These lyrics fill out Ellery's half-annunciated syllables with surprising coherence. But lucid narration is not his primary concern. In the opening lines of 'Such a Sad Puppy Dog,' he delivers the album's modus operandi, singing, "My baby's got no words" in a deep grumble.

"For me, that song is one of the most potent pieces of information," Roberts says. "When you process an emotion, its difficult to find the right words for it, but you can make the sound of how you feel."

Watch WU LYF's 'Spitting Blood' Video:

WU LYF's sound is huge, and the disused church they inhabited to record was integral in vaulting their sound to the rafters. Though it is easy (enticing, in fact) to dismiss this as another clichéd press ploy, the abandoned church in Ancoats served as a vital cocoon and allowed them to metamorphose from their larval state. "If there was going to be a producer, it would've been the church," says bassist Tom McCLung. "It kind of told us in its sound to play less, to properly hold back and to think about what it is that you're trying to do, what you're trying to say." The church echo lends uniformity to the album. Songs are painted with the same limited palette. They blend into and bounce off of one another, creating a network of recall that rewards multiple listens.

The physical aspects of the building proved daunting. "After the first week we were standing there bunched up in socks and listened back to the recordings," Ellery joins in. "We realized that we were playing everything really fast because it was so cold." Despite bone-chilling temperatures, the church provided a warm layer of reverb that lurks in every nook and cranny of the record.

The church taught WU LYF pacing and dynamics but it also taught them how to use space. "We started playing in the arch, the front part of the church where the altar used to be, where the preacher would preach," McClung says of the recording process. "We thought maybe the sound would travel better there but then we ended up in a circle in the middle of the church. We had a PA set up facing outwards and we had room mics that captured all the ambience." The acoustics of the church forced him to relocate his bass amp to a cabinet in the back of the room, but he remained in the circle.

It was accordingly that WU LYF hit upon their singular live set-up. Videos of their older sets show the band as a traditional four-piece: the drummer centered in the back, the remaining three lined up in front. After the church residency, their set-up has undergone a revelation. "When we play we can only really play facing each other," McClung explains, and thus the band now plays shows arranged in a shallow arc. Perceived from the audience, the band looks splayed out like the front line of an attack phalanx. From house left, guitar, drums, organ/vocals and bass form a wall of sound.

McClung moves wild and spastic; his constant convulsions belie his steady time-keeping abilities. Drummer Joe Manning moves in intricate lockstep with McClung, precise yet unfettered, like a drum machine that has discovered its autonomy. By the end of most sets they are all shirtless with the exception of guitarist Evans Kati, whose rock solid presence stage right provides the foundation against which the energy springs, moves and reverberates fluidly among the members of the wall.

In person, Ellery Roberts is unassuming with softspoken intelligence. Onstage, wild-eyed intensity and feral movements accompany his guttural utterances; there, he is magnetic. The shouts the band elicits during their short set reveals their second accidental masterstroke. Screams of elation, encouragement and reckless abandon all sound indistinguishable from the first syllable of the acronym: "WU!"

As for the band's name? Roberts explains: "It came out of the acronym. It was developed from Vagina Wolf but then we dropped the vagina. It was embarrassing to tell your auntie that you were in Vagina Wolf. Then it was Wolf, and we started spelling "Wolf" W-u-l-f. Then we came up with WU LYF and an acronym for that was just reactionary, prepubescent, political bulls---. It was just dumbass s---."

In a time of media oversaturation, WU LYF proves that meaning is not derived from what one says, nor from how frequently one speaks; it comes across in how one says it.