Wu Lyf: better the devil you don't know

Satanic youth cult or rock'n'roll revolutionaries? The rumours surrounding Manchester's Wu Lyf are legion – but their desire for anonymity has a simple explanation, discovers Paul Lester

Manchester's Wu Lyf are probably the most talked-about new British band of the last year. And they earned that reputation by not talking: until recently, they gave no interviews.

Eighteen months ago they sent out a solitary photo of a group of kids in a car park, shrouded in smoke, their faces covered by white bandanas. It made them seem like the sexiest youth cult imaginable, and it sent London's record companies gaga. But Wu Lyf resisted all advances, preferring instead to issue, via their website, gnomic utterances and enigmatic mission statements, written in a barely comprehensible language that suggested Wu Lyf – which stands for World Unite! Lucifer Youth Foundation – was a cabal with its own secret codes and practices.

They are only agreeing to speak now because their debut album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, is being released and they finally have something to discuss: not for them the banal chatter of Twitter (although they're delighted that Jay-Z, one of their heroes, has been tweeting about them). If anything, Go Tell … compounds the Wu Lyf myth, with its church organ and gruff vocals offering a blur of words that do little to elucidate the inscrutable song titles: Summas Bliss, We Bros, Such a Sad Puppy Dog, and so on.

One of their missives, attributed to "Cassius Clay" (the birth name of Muhammad Ali, another Wu Lyf hero), featured an explanation for their cryptic modus operandi. There, amid the fervid rhetoric, was their rationale. "It was never about anonymity, mystery," it said. "Narcissism seems to have become such a cultural norm that if a kid doesn't care to publish his face, print his name and publish his biography then they pin you up for the easy way out."

Ironically, of course, their resistance to the cult of personality merely heightened their mystique. But they seem to genuinely want to play it down. So much so that when I greet two of their members – singer Ellery Roberts and bassist Tom McClung – at An Outlet, a cafe in central Manchester, the scene of their early gigs, with a friendly "Ah, the famous Wu Lyf!", they respond with a deflating: "Not really."

Perhaps they're being cautious, which is understandable. After all, in April an article in the Guardian "outed" them for being managed by Warren Bramley, founder of creative agency four23, whose clients include Reebok, Adidas and Virgin. The implication was that the ideas for their artwork, their impressive videos, and their concept as a whole were not all their own, that they were somehow manufactured, a kind of avant-garde boy band.

They dismiss the article as "a bit pathetic", but they're happy to explain their relationship with Bramley, referred to on their website as "War God".

"We can see how people could be cynical about our relationship with Warren, but the truth is, we make our own music, our own films, our own artwork," says Roberts. "All he does is give us the space to be able to do those things." As for what Roberts calls "marketing gimmicks" – such as selling their debut single for £15 a copy, which also entitled fans to lifetime membership of the LYF – he says: "We want to do more of those things. Warren's always saying, 'No!'"

Wu Lyf were never meant to be a simple four-piece rock band anyway. Yes, they have a singer, a guitarist (Evans Kati), a bassist and a drummer (Joe Manning), but their roles are fluid – Roberts, for example, designed their website – and they readily admit to having "auxiliary" members who help with the look and overall feel of the Wu world.

Like that other much-hyped band of the moment, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Wu Lyf are more than a band, they're a mini-corporation, with plans to extend into other media, including film.

"We're four chairmen of our own company and we focus on what we want to do," McClung declares.

"I'm not just singing and playing keyboards in a band," Roberts agrees. "We're entrepreneurs. I'm co-founder of the LYF."

Just as Odd Future turned out not to be feral skate-kids but ambitious middle-class rappers and producers, so Wu Lyf are hardly the prole art threat you might expect.

Roberts may say: "Safe middle-class Britain is pretty boring to me – I'm much more excited by the idea of the primal, not fucking twittering or sitting in front of a computer but living outside." He might even declare "We roll as a pack quite often" and compare himself and his mates to the Lost Boys; but he is open about his background – architect parents, father a councillor in Burnley – and sees no reason why it should prevent him from reinventing himself.

They debunk the idea of themselves as mysterious, shadowy figures – "It's not about mystique," McClung says – while also acknowledging the creative potential of a career out of the limelight.

"We have no responsibility to be a cliched band," states Roberts. "We're just having fun making things. We're pretty 'on-it' kids."

Roberts and McClung met when they were, respectively, six and seven, at school in Bury. McClung remembers being hyperactive; Roberts was repeatedly told he was dyslexic. His English teacher, confounded by his erratic abilities, apparently concluded: "Ellory is either a complete genius or a total madman, I'm not sure which."

Roberts can't really explain why Wu Lyf's lyrics are full of neo-biblical imagery – all blood and fire and crowns – nor why one of their main insignia is a cross, but he does admit that he got suspended from secondary school for putting a picture of Ho Chi Minh's face on Christ's body. Why did he do it? "Because I thought it was funny," he says. "I was just being a pain in the arse."

The childhood friends lost touch until, in 2006, they found each other again. Soon after, they started making music.

"Most kids have a sense of never wanting to grow up," says McClung, who trained to be a nurse in Manchester. "Our idea was: you don't have to. You never have to get a job you don't like. When you grow up, you realise that's not such a far-off dream."

When Roberts and McClung – who are still only 20 and 21 – formed their first bands in the mid-noughties, they were demonstrably not under the giant shadow cast by their Manc-rock forebears. Do they feel antipathy towards all that history? Because, however strenuously they deny it, there is much of Factory's myth-making about them, while Bramley worked for the reactivated Factory Too in the 90s.

"It doesn't mean much to me," says Roberts. "I'm aware it's there, but I don't care. I don't particularly like or know about the Roses or the Mondays. I always thought the Stone Roses were dance music but apparently they're not. I liked Joy Division and bought Unknown Pleaures when I was 15, and I thought it was all right, but I felt a bit miserable afterwards."

For McClung, it always felt as though the myth of Manchester was "being rubbed in my face". It strengthened his resolve to make new marks. When Wu Lyf came together over 2007 and 2008, it was not under the influence of any of the things you might guess. Yes, Roberts prefers Public Image Limited to the Sex Pistols, but was never impressed by PiL's attempts to reimagine the pop group as a multimedia organisation. And when I mention the playful subterfuge of the ZTT label in the mid-80s as a possible precursor – what with Paul Morley's sleevenotes and those Frankie Say T-shirts – McClung is suspicious.

"Those T-shirts seem like marketing for Che Guevara revolutionaries," he says.

"People ram revolution at us – it's a complete pretence," Roberts adds. "'I'm a revolutionary!' What's your revolution?"

Although their tumblr website is full of apocalyptic imagery and calls to arms, Wu Lyf have more modest ambitions, or at least more specific and pragmatic objectives than the vague, grand rock gesture. And they have an unexpected influence in the hardcore bands of the 80s, many of them from the SST label.

"I always preferred bands like the Minutemen and Black Flag," says McClung. "They put on gigs that suited their surroundings and really thought about things: for example, gigs would start at half-seven so that people could watch then go home in time so they wouldn't be late for work the next day. Fugazi would set low prices for gigs, and Minor Threat would print the price of the record on the sleeve so that it couldn't be changed. That sort of stuff is far more inspiring to us."

"That is much more akin to LYF than the KLF," adds Roberts. "We're providing a sense of community, and content for fans at the lowest cost. We don't want to be revolutionary in rhetoric. Maybe in action."

Not that they're po-faced ideologues: when we retire to the pub, the banter is not much less bawdy than you might get from members of the Mondays or Oasis. Females at adjacent tables are admired, comedy impressions are performed (McClung does a pretty decent Ringo Starr) and a good time is had by all. It's only when they consider being seduced by the conventional rock'n'roll life that they get serious.

"People say, 'Wu Lyf are out to destroy the record industry by the way they're doing things!' But we've never been against the recording industry; it just doesn't interest us much being part of it."

But can they sustain it: staying outside, releasing their own records, working on "extracurricular" projects with limited budgets and resources?

"As long as we don't follow that path to rock'n'roll excess," replies Roberts. McClung is certain he can avoid the conventional routes to success, because for him, he's already achieved it.

"The way that we're living now is good - we're not driven by a desire to get a raise or climb up the ladder because we're pretty much at the top of what we're doing already," he says, and as one-quarter of the most blathered and blogged about band in Britain, he's got a point.

• This article was amended on 10 June 2010. The original stated that the Wu Lyf debut single was £50. This has been corrected.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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