“Watch me! Watch me!” Hayden Thorpe howls at the beginning of Wild Beasts’ 2009 single “All The Kings Men”. His voice flies high in pitch and urgency, but his request is not to be taken at face value: Thorpe is speaking in character, from a perspective of aristocratic privilege, neediness, and “new shiny shoes.” He and fellow frontman Ian Fleming do this often – assume others’ voices in the service of prodding the taboos of class, sexuality, and mortality. “We are the boys who’ll drape you in jewels, cut off your hair, and throw out your shoes,” fellow frontman Ian Fleming continues on the song, fleshing out the terms of a transaction equal parts lust and calculation. “Cause, baby, you won’t need them where you’ll be.”
But before you even get to those lecherous come-ons, you should be well clued in to the satirical slant of “All The Kings Men”: Wild Beasts is not a band that needs to openly plead for anyone’s attention. Over the course of four albums and seven years, the band has established its identity as a uniquely dramatic and boldly progressive four-piece. Wild Beasts is not a band that needs to shout “watch me,” because everything about it already does.
Its latest record, Present Tense, finds the group of childhood friends exploring the edges of its sound – dispatching with most of the arm-waving and high-flying theatrics that first garnered it praise, but continuing to do so in a way that maintains a rich sense of drama. In streamlining its sound, Wild Beasts have made every subtle shift in momentum, every new synth in the mix, every counter-melody count more and hit harder. And, ultimately, the record boasts its finest songs to date – a collection of eleven simple beautiful truths. It’s the result, in part, of a band breaking from its established patterns: Painstakingly recording over an extended period of time; working with new producers (Leo Abrahams and Alex “Lexxx” Dromgoole); and, in the course of doing, taking almost three years to follow up its previous LP – a huge gap by its typically breakneck standards.
BYT called Thorpe last night to discuss the process behind Present Tense and the years surrounding its inception. A few hours earlier, Wild Beasts had landed in New York, and the singer was in the process of “climatizing.” “It’s obviously a lot hotter and stickier than London at the moment,” he said. “But we’re pleased to be here.”
Wild Beasts plays Hudson River Park tonight – as past of its free River Rocks series – and DC’s 9:30 Club on Saturday. To win a pair of tickets to the 9:30 Club performance, comment and tell us your favorite Wild Beasts song. Present Tense is out now on Domino
Present Tense it is a relatively muted record. How has it translated live?
I think, as a whole, it has translated very well. We kind of set out to sonically to be a bit more robust and a bit more brash – to use the synths a bit more, kind of almost crudely. And in that sense, synthesizers on that kind of volume has become a very physical thing. And it’s that physicality – that music of the body – that we are trying to evoke, and trying to kind of speak of. In fact, on a live level, it kind of galvanizes us, and I think we are really able to put across our story in a more kind of widescreen way. We’re trying to send out these guttural sounds, and it’s fun for the most part.
How has the experience of touring changed for you over time – the act of performance itself and what you personally get out of it?
It’s definitely an art that I had to learn to love. I definitely felt like this timid teenager at first, kind of lanky and clumsy on stage. I wasn’t quite sure how to behave. I was bounding around; just getting by on a combination of adrenaline and terror. For the most part, that was our early incarnation. The kind of the shock and awe of playing live early on did us a lot of favors, I think. There was a flamboyance and a heart to what we did, which was not around the Northern English pub scene at that point. They weren’t used to these guys dressing quite so bizarrely and making this quite out-there music. And I think it kind of galvanized us and actually egged us on to get more and more extreme. I think that the first album, Limbo Panto, was a result of the joy of provocation.
But as times got on, I have definitely personally learned to enjoy it far more. I have learned to breath, which is an important thing to do.
You took more time than usual between Smother and Present Tense. During those first four years, when you put out three records and were touring extensively, did it feel as if you were moving at an especially fast pace?
It did feel kind of like we were surviving off air, water, and momentum. There wasn’t a lot of space. It was our entire existence. Within that time frame, we made an leap into the unknown and just kept pushing, because we were hungry. And we are still hungry, but there was that kind of youthful hunger that felt so vital and powerful.
But I do think that by the end of Smother, we exhausted that shamanism, as it were. Because it is shamanism – you’re going blindly into this with the faith that it will work out. And luckily for us, it did work out, but you can’t keep on going blindly. You have believe that you have the craft to actually take some time to do something else, and at that point, it becomes your responsibility to do so.
The long and the short of it is that we did put the breaks on, because it was kind of the old Icarus tale: We were pushing our luck a bit and potentially looking at crashing.
What did the downtime allow for? Were you able to pursue other interests outside of music?
It allowed for time to repair in a sense. It’s hard to explain, but you can’t do this line of work without it having a warping effect on you. I defy anyone to spend a year on stage and come off a very level person – and never mind for three albums of it. So, on a personal level, there was a desire for some clarity, some stillness.
I think we all were yearning for some stillness. We all grew up in the mountains, and not to get nostalgic about it, but our sense of peace is kind of very still, and very quite, and very remote. And after a long time of being around people all the time, we realized three or four days into writing Present Tense that it was the longest time we had spent alone in years and years, and there was kind of a re-enchantment with the reasons we were a gang in the first place. As a bunch of guys, we get along amazingly, and we have this unspoken musical understanding which superstitiously happens. And, personally, I wanted to get hungry again.
I saw an interview from earlier this year where you said that bands start out as things bound by what its members collectively disapproved of. What were those things for Wild Beasts?
We were kids of the Britpop era. We grew up with Britpop. Oasis was the biggest band in the world at the time. And I was deeply in love with them. I learned every song Noel Gallagher ever wrote. But the natural instinct at that point is to kick against it. As it denatures with time, you start to dig a little deeper. And I think it coincided with a time where there was a revival of this leather jacket, lager rock, which for us just felt so alien. I had just gone on and discovered The Smiths and Talking Heads and people from that lineage. It felt like we were growing up in the wrong era. We came out and we were so uncool for what was going on at the time. We were achingly uncool. But then again, that is kind of what bound us.
Album to album, you’ve seemed to push yourselves in new directions. Present Tense is a very bold record, and it challenges perceptions of what Wild Beats is. Do you think it’s the responsibility of a band or art in general to confront and challenge its audiences?
We see it as an absolute responsibility. But, that said, we never had an album become the whale that we have to carry. We’ve never had anything to uphold. That fluidity and the unknown is kind of what makes us.
As a creative person, I cannot see the fucking point if you are kicking over. I think you have to risk humiliation, embarrassment, and ridicule to come close to something that has some worth. You have to come close to those things, and that’s where you know the tough guys from the not – the guys that really get close enough to risk it all and pull it off. And that makes the stunt so much more stunning.
I guess that we are just awful careerists. We do not have a business mind within us. In general, our records tend to be heartfelt and sincere. No one else is telling us what to do. At the moment, it is bit of a rarity as a platform, as an opportunity for people. I am grateful for that.
How did the songs on the record generally come together? Were arrangements peeled back and whittled down, or did they take shape more incrementally?
It was really varied. There wasn’t many songs that weren’t painstakingly arranged over months and years. There weren’t many that weren’t really almost out-thunk. There is a point where you have a good idea and you think around it so much that you forget what that good idea was. Good ideas are so fragile. They are so vulnerable. You have a slight snapshot of a great idea one morning and 18 moths later you are still trying to milk it for all it’s worth. And sometimes within that process, you can just milk it dry. We actually had to stop in that process. We had to stop trying so hard sometimes.
The best results were always the ones where we were blindsided. “Mecca”, “Simple Beautiful Truth”, “A Dog’s Life” – all these songs completely randomly fell into place after having had three or four far less powerful but far more organized versions. And I suppose when you take that length to make the record, the privilege is that you get to wait for the good days.
Was there any sense that by having more stripped down arrangements, it heightened the importance of the melodies and vocals? Did you feel more pressure as a songwriter and singer to carry the songs?
Yeah, definitely. We spent longer on the vocals on this album than any other. We probably spent four or five times as long. We spent more time on the vocals on this record than all the albums put together. But that was more about delivery, and, again, the privilege of waiting for a good day. Previously, the vocal had to be done that morning for Smother, and if it wasn’t done, then the song didn’t come out. And this time, you could try the vocal a month later, on a day that you felt good. That’s a privileged position to be in.
But also you are opening up a whole kind of hornet’s net of superstition and ego, I guess. I think a lot of these songs by nature were pop songs, and it felt kind of necessary to let them play out like that. It felt almost like self-sabotage to not allow them go that route. That was a learning curve, because I always thought good pop songs were cheap and easy. After a point, I realized that the best pop songs were the most deft and intelligent things you can put together.
How did working with Leo Abrahams and Lexxx change things? What did they bring to the table that past producers hadn’t?
Not that anyone we’ve worked for before was lazy, but these guys’ work ethic was shocking. It was just relentless, and there was this energy and willingness to keep going – to just scrap days and days of work in one sweep because it wasn’t working out, and to plow on. It was a real eye-opening way of working for us. It completely dispelled the sense of being pressured about ideas. Things that you kind of slaved over would hit dead ends, and you wouldn’t look over that dead end for any more than a second. You just changed the file, closed it down, and started again. I suppose, in that sense, it brought a freshness. They brought a kind of vitality to it.
In terms of the mechanics – what went on in the studio – Lexxx was really the sonics guy, and Leo was kind of the emotion guy, the songwriter and craft. It was a very complimentary scenario, really. And they both have huge investments of old world knowledge in a sense, through Leo working with Brian Eno, and Lexxx and his work with synths. So we were looking kind of open-eyed at these old ideas, but they have the know-how to bring them into today with software and that world. It was a very intense affair, but one that I think we enjoyed hugely.
There’s a directness to your songs on this record. Is that something you had to work towards? Do you find yourself to be a naturally direct person?
I think I have grown to be more direct as I have become less of a bashful teenager. If anything, being in a band cocoons you from adulthood, and it probably did me good to have to be a proper adult for a while. I was kid of bored of being the shy guy who couldn’t express himself in song.
But I think how our sonics developed and the melodies we wrote allowed the words to have to carry far less weight. I realized why the best pop lyrics work. Even though on paper they look like a fucking mess, frankly, the most beautiful melody can completely revive and resuscitate the most hanging words. It subverts them. If you have the most beautiful line and you put this kind of cruddy melody, you kill it. But you have the most cliched, dead-end line, and when you put it to this joyous melody, now you are talking. So I think there was a fascination with the power of that – almost allowing the melody and the sonics to do the legwork, as a lot of good pop does.