My profile of Wild Beasts for last week’s NME:
By the end of 2011, Wild Beasts were broken men. They had been touring ‘Smother’ for six solid months without a break – it was their third album in four years, each made in great haste to sustain momentum after their slow beginnings. The end was in sight in Istanbul, just under a week before the serious touring would be over for a while. After the show, the four Beasts painted the town red, and then green, the night playing out like one of the less elegant scenes from their bawdy second album, ‘Two Dancers’.
“I got horrendously drunk,” says co-frontman Hayden Thorpe, working an interesting look of ribbed thermals and immaculately slicked-back hair in an upmarket Deptford café in mid-January. “Got lost, pissed in the street, all sorts. Vomited on the way back to the hotel, vomited all the way back to London, then got home and was like… what was that? What has become!”
What could have amounted to a day of Netflix and fried eggs actually led to a moment of sudden calm that he hadn’t experienced for years. “You have those really rare, fleeting moments of clarity in life,” he says, sitting next to guitarist Ben Little. “You feel this sense of wellbeing that’s gone again in an instant; you’re always drawing it from memory – you can never see it full in the face.”
‘Smother’ was essentially about how touring ‘Two Dancers’ ruined their relationships and lives, which inevitably became a “claustrophobic world” to live in. With the memory of that album consigned to the gutters of Istanbul, over the next few days Hayden developed the idea for a song called ‘Pregnant Pause’, an early first step towards Wild Beasts’ fourth record. But before the band went anywhere near a studio, they took eight months off to decompress at home in north London, rehabilitating their broken lives and only seeing each other for odd social occasions. After the reassuring, hard-won success of ‘Smother’, it was the first time they had ever been able to take a break and contemplate the band’s existence. The hiatus proved valuable.
“I think we rediscovered our innocence,” says Hayden of the mood that informed ‘Present Tense’, Wild Beasts’ superb new album, which was partially recorded down the road in a railway arch studio. “We rediscovered each other in a way. It feels like all the other records are a big intake of breath and this is a final, long exhale.”
The week before our Deptford meeting, Wild Beasts received a not entirely welcome reminder of the relative level of fame that ‘Smother’ brought them. “Wild Beasts take swipe at British bands who sing with US accents”, stated a headline in The Guardian. The subhead declared, “Hayden Thorpe claims lyrics to new single refer to UK singers with Americanised voices – such as the Arctic Monkeys”. The story misconstrued remarks that Hayden had made to Pitchfork about ‘Wanderlust’, the lead single from ‘Present Tense’ – with its lyric, “in your mother tongue, what’s the verb ‘to suck’?” – and dug up past examples of disdain fired at other British bands for good measure. But the words “Arctic Monkeys” never crossed Hayden’s lips, only those of the interviewer. “I was pretty upset and embarrassed,” he says. It feels like an unfortunate own goal where someone’s kicked the ball at my head and it’s hit the back of my own net.”
“It makes us look like petty bastards,” adds Wild Beasts’ other singer, Tom Fleming, with a groan. “Like we’re trying to generate column inches by slagging off much more successful bands.”
“For all the liberal frontage, they pick up on something that’s poisonous,” says drummer Chris Talbot, whose voice creaks like an old ship. “There’s no good to come out of that.”
As Domino labelmates, Arctic Monkeys’ success essentially ensures Wild Beasts’ survival – and what made it all even more absurd was the fact ‘Wanderlust’ covers the kind of subjects The Guardian normally use to butter their bread: Britain’s widening poverty gap, class conflict and the romance of the landscape. There’s another angle to it, too: “Wanderlust, with us the world feels voluptuous”, Hayden purrs, “I just feel more with us/It’s a feeling that I’ve come to trust”. On first listen, it sounds like a tribute to adventurous erotic possibilities with a new lover. Then you realise: it’s a love letter to Wild Beasts and everything they can achieve.
“It was our mission statement,” says Hayden. “From the Stone Age to now, we judge our whole past by the culture people have left behind. ‘Wanderlust’ is almost a kind of war cry, asking, is this the best we’ve got – kids singing in accents that aren’t their own, singing about lives that aren’t theirs, and reaping huge rewards from it? So little is done with so much privilege – music is really a class thing, because if we’re under a government that’s making people pay £9000 a year for university, then it’s only the rich kids who’ll get to art and music school. We’re talking about such a small group of people who are gonna create work that is supposed to define or tell us what our lives are. It’s a very scary prospect. So we had to redefine our parameters: this is what we are, what we do, what we kick against. It felt necessary because we’ve always prided ourselves on – and I’m worried it sounds really cynical, but it’s not – saying, this is our patch, this is what we believe in, this is what we don’t believe in. That has to be the starting point for any creative work, really.”
When Wild Beasts reconvened in the studio after those eight months apart, it was the first time they’d been alone in a room together in many years, away from the parade of journalists and managers out on the road. After the lonely, dimpled downheartedness of ‘Smother’, their aim was to sound like a gang again. It wasn’t particularly difficult – they huddled around a laptop in a tiny room in east London because they couldn’t afford to hire a bigger one, and eventually succumbed to cabin fever.
Inspired by their love of the abstracted, broken qualities in the music of Tim Hecker, Clams Casino, Ben Frost and Lil B, and the idea that cracked software is the new lo-fi, they delighted in the limitations and immediacy of working on a laptop. “Suddenly you haven’t just got four pairs of hands,” says Tom, “you’re building worlds.” Songs were assembled from a patchwork of original recordings, samples and presets, which they then recorded in Bath and Deptford with electronic producers Lexxx and Leo Abrahams.
The end result isn’t a mass of dense electronic layers, but 11 distinct, prowling pop songs that are testament to Wild Beasts’ refined craft. ‘Present Tense’ is a hugely rewarding album to tuck into: spend some time with it and you’ll notice that the first three songs play out like acts of a tragedy, where desire is within anyone’s reach on ‘Wanderlust’; concealed on the provocative ‘Nature Boy’; but gone completely by ‘Mecca’. Hayden’s songs are probably the most emotional and heartfelt he’s ever written, in awe of romance and possibility. ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ is the essence of all that, and was one of the hardest songs to finish, tiptoeing the line between sounding honest and intimate or playing to the cheap seats.
“I was kind of terrified when we finished the album,” he admits. “Emotionality is hijacked so much now, it’s hard to make music that’s genuinely positive and not just fun-time Frankie-style – it feels almost like you’re trying to take advantage, expecting someone to pick up the phone and send you money if you touch them in some way. I was embarrassed about some of the lines – is this soppy, is this over-sentimental? But I think that’s a good place to be at, really. Someone could easily think this is overly emotional music, but that’s where the fault line is, where people can get into it.”
By contrast, Tom credits the patchwork writing method with helping him “take the songwriter out of it” and enable him to write from a less personal place: ‘Nature Boy’ is a homoerotic treatise on male sexual prowess; ‘Daughters’ envisions an apocalyptic future in which our children take revenge on us for the mess we’ve made; ‘A Dog’s Life’ is a tragic tale of death, canine or otherwise. “There’s a certain amount of guilt making music,” he says. “It tends to be very much me, me, me. The whole world is outside happening and you’ve got to remember that you’re part of it.”
It comes back to the idea of responsibility couched within ‘Wanderlust’; Wild Beasts constantly talk about “justifying” their existence. It’s refreshing – think of Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson, who recently admitted that his role as a judge on The Voice was essentially a promotional tool for the band’s new album: give it up, already. “I’d hate to think we were going through the motions,” says Tom. “We’re still in touch with why we started doing this, remembering that angry 16-year-old from a small town, sick of everything around him and desperate to be heard. While our premise for existing has evolved, it’s definitely because we think we’ve got something to add to the discussion. No-one else is doing what we’re going to do, so it’s important that we do it.”
“I’m not saying we’re the future and the forerunners,” says Hayden, “because we’re not. We’re guys who do our best pushing computers and synths around. But the album title hints at a sense of responsibility, that there’s so much we can do, yet so little is expected of us.
“It’s important that our end of the bargain is still held,” says Chris.
Hayden talks about how the follow-up to ‘Present Tense’ will probably see them having to change the way they work, calling the record “the final realisation of a lot of things we started”. But for now, Wild Beasts’ patch is well established: it’s one they share with the likes of These New Puritans, East India Youth, Jon Hopkins and Anna Meredith, the new alternative British music firmament who perceive identity not as a restriction or embarrassment, but as a whole world of possibility.
Reading back over old interviews, what’s amazing is how immaculately consistent Kendal’s Wild Beasts have been over their 12 years together: bristling against the conventions of boorish British rock music, never apologising for their capital-R Romantic tendencies or their undaunted self-confidence. The band got its unwitting start when Ben Little came over to Hayden’s house after school for a big night of drinking Mr Thorpe’s beer and smoking his cigarettes. “We were 14, 15; it was the era of MiniDisc,” recalls Hayden. “You could make home recordings – it felt like the future. I’d accidentally left one of mine in my player; Ben came round and clicked play, and I was like” – he grits his teeth – “oh my god.”
Fortunately, Ben was a fast fan, and the pair soon started writing songs together. What came out was “effeminate, fragile, displaced” – a side they had no intention of revealing to their classmates until their first gig as Fauve (“wild beast” in French) at now-defunct Kendal mainstay, Dicky Doodles, a year or two later. They wielded the strange emotional qualities of their songs as “a shock tactic”, says Hayden. “We wanted people to react to it, and I think they were quite taken aback.” A local journalist asked the pair why they made music. “Because we think we’re better than everyone else,” they replied.
Present that night were Chris Talbot, who they’d met at primary school, and Tom Fleming, who was in the year above. One interim bassist later, the pair eventually completed the newly named Wild Beasts. Together they built a studio, The Unit, in a nearby industrial estate, which Ben quit school after doing his AS-levels to run full-time. They worked there three days and four nights a week, trying to infuse the Peak District landscape into their music in the same way that Björk had done with Iceland. These were the first steps to world domination. “It astounds me how sure we were that it was going to work out,” says Ben, shaking his head. “There wasn’t a plan B.”
“I don’t think there was ever a doubt we were going to get signed,” adds Hayden. “It’s weird. It’s an arrogance that baffles me now. I had expected that at 30, we would have made our millions, burnt out and been in rehab. That was genuinely my initial outlook – it’s over by 30, get on with the rest of life.”
He concedes that things will have to go pretty well for them to be millionaires by the time they’re 30. They’re all 27 or 28 – bar Tom, who’s 29, and refers to himself as “the grandad” of the band – and aware of the wolf at the door. They’ve all left Dalston in east London because it’s too expensive, and perpetually feel one pay cheque away from returning to Kendal with their tails between their legs.
In a sense, they made good on their youthful cockiness – not many bands get to release four albums on an internationally respected British indie – but not before time. Domino signed them for debut ‘Limbo, Panto’ in 2008, which turned out to be as much an obstacle to success as it was a minor victory. Baffled reviewers likened them to Mika and The Darkness, while they played festival sets to small crowds comprised solely of other bands.
“That was the frustration with that record,” says Tom, “that everyone thought it was some kind of art-school project when we set ourselves in complete opposition to that.”
“I think the best thing that happened to us was that our dreams were shattered with ‘Limbo, Panto’,” says Hayden as the other three laugh. “Literally shattered. That broken-heartedness was the making of us.”
The 2009 follow-up, ‘Two Dancers’, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and ‘Smother’ won them huge critical respect, but Wild Beasts still suffer from underdog syndrome, worrying that the poppier songs on ‘Present Tense’ could see them “torn down”. Isn’t that rockist nonsense, or just self-doubt by another name? “Well… it is self-doubt,” says Tom, who admits that he’d love to make music like his heroes, experimental noise titans Swans. “But we’re the sort of band that depends on critical consensus. We don’t have massive financial form and we don’t have much Radio 1 airplay, everyone’s going to be supportive if we’re not doing too well. We don’t want to alienate the people who have been with us all this time.”
“I don’t think there’s a danger of that,” says Chris, restoring sanity. “We made a brasher and bolder record, there’s no doubt about it.”
They all seem nervous about turning 30, referring to it as a “big shadow” on what they see as a young man’s game. But instead of self-pitying defeatism, they’ve sized up age as another challenge. “Have you heard Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures?” asks Hayden. “They’re really good – he said that sometimes the word ‘art’ can excuse inability and laziness. A band becomes an ‘art band’ when they can’t write good songs. We’re definitely conscious of that – after this amount of time, we have to be good at our craft on a fundamental level. A pop song should be absolutely weightless, it should defy gravity and sound so effortless, like a piece of fluff you’ve just kicked off the floor. Ironically, for us, that’s the hardest thing to do – it’s not really in our natural remit, though we want it to be because it’s hard to attain. If we have to make a three-and-a-half-minute song to fit with [the modern industry’s] parameters, then we’ll make one no-one can touch.”
“We’ll do it fucking well, thank you,” says Tom, confidence restored.