By Philip Runco.
Few bands relish the exploration of sexuality’s darker side like Wild Beasts. Its latest record, Boy King, is no different in that regard, even if singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have never sounded more unsure of where – if at all – romance fits into physical contact.
Sonically, Boy King is a different animal, though. Its serated guitars and industrial feel is like nothing the band has created before.Where 2014’s Present Tense alternated between slinking and floating ethereally, this record grinds and punches. The synths pulse like the faltering neon lights of a seedy club bathroom, and what you see in those moments of clarity isn’t always pretty.
I called frontman Hayden Thorpe on the last day in September to discuss recording the album in Dallas with producer John Congleton, Wild Beasts’ restless nature, and his fascination with sex.
Last time we spoke, you called Wild Beasts’ first record “a result of the joy of provocation.” Four albums later, Boy King still feels provocative, albeit in an entirely different way. How much does that joy still fuel Wild Beasts? How much do you still want to confound your audience’s expectations?
As long you don’t place the want to shock over the want to create something of beauty, I think it’s OK. The beauty has to come before the shock, but I do think that you can achieve both simultaneously; it just takes a bit of craft.
I actually hadn’t thought that we had this kind of album in us, to be fair. I hadn’t conceived of the idea that we could bring an aggression and a heaviness to our music, while still maintaining a sense of elegance. So, it was shock to me. That’s what you get off on, though: the slightly nauseating sensation of “ooh, can we kind of pull this off?” It’s always in those borderlines where it’s slightly taboo. I found myself thinking, “I didn’t think that I was into crunchy, aggro guitars, and all of a sudden, I’m using them to represent the anguish and angst that I feel.”
We’re a gang. We’ve been in this band together since we’ve been kids, and, therefore, we throw our weight around with one another. That’s what gangs do. There’s a sense of one-upmanship. With any record, we get ourselves in a frenzy where one person goes further than the other, and all of a sudden, you kind of have a runaway train. That’s what you do it for, I guess.
When you’re moving into new stylistic territory, is there a sense of disorientation? Do feel any uncomfortability or a lack of confidence at first?
When we were in the studio with John [Congleton], the guys were laying down the guitars, and I distinctly remember saying to them, “You guys are retracking those, right? That’s just a sketch, isn’t it?” And they looked at me and said, “No, that’s the final take.” And I have to admit that there was kind of a quick sucking in of air from me. That’s when I realized this was the way it was going. In that sense, you have to lean into it wholeheartedly.
I hadn’t expected it to take the turn it did. I wanted to make a soft soul record. I guess that’s the nature of being in the band. We pride ourselves on being in a band in the typical sense, in that we are collaborators. When things come about, the final shape is in all of our hands rather than one orchestrator.
What would have a soft soul record sounded like? The dark feel of this record seems to pair so closely with the perspectives on sexuality and self-worth.
In some respects, the violence and aggression of the sound allowed me to croon and emote more. If the sonics had been softer, then my guess my vocal delivery would have ended up pretty acidic in a sense. A song like “Celestial Creatures” began as a ballad – just piano and vocal. That was the song where we realized, “We can stretch the skin of this thing. We can go further.”
I don’t know how it would have worked out. Things reached a fever pitch towards the end of the writing, in the last couple of months. We described it as putting a leather jacket on everything. Every song has a dark side and kind of an alter ego, and we decided to adopt that alter ego, and accept it. This where it was kind of a personal breakthrough for myself: The songs were no longer a way of disguising that darkness. They actually became a way to channel it, and kind of live with it. It wasn’t something I was able to do before.
I’m intrigued by the idea of recording in Dallas “teasing the raw power” of the record. What is something about the city itself? Or was it just getting out of the country?
Personally, I required some severance in my life at that point. It was a good time for me to get on a plane and have an open return. A good record is always an adventure. It’s kind of an unknown.
Dallas was never a place we romanticized. It was kind a fixed position. We only went there because John Congleton is based and works there.
What happened very quickly is that we realized our polite, gentile, Norther English sensibilities were kind of disproportionate in Texas, with its kind of gung-ho openheartedness. There was also the “Oprah effect” of American culture, as well; that ability to vocalize is not inherent in our British culture. The two of those things rubbed against each other and created an energy that suited us. I felt unashamed and unselfconscious in a way that I don’t think the superstition of London allows you to be free of, especially when your studio is in hipseter HQ, where we’re based – willingly, I should add.
It was very much the case that our indie boy credentials were worth shit when we landed in Dallas. We were there to be players, and really do what we say we do – do the job that we proclaim to be doing. It’s especially true when you go into the studio with John, who has worked with such a high caliber of musicians and artists – you have to kind of stick your chest out a bit, and hope that you can hold your own a little.
This is a sexually charged record, and to some degree, all of Wild Beasts records have explored sensuality and masculinity and power dynamics. What makes that subject – admittedly, broadly defined – such fruitful territory?
To bring some great hyperbole into it, I’m of the opinion that it’s arts job to deal with those things. Everyday life doesn’t allow us to explore those aspects of the psyche. I kind of feel like it’s my job to go to those spaces and to report back on my findings.
Why is it such fertile ground? I don’t see myself as being any more or less disinterested in sex than any other person. I don’t see myself as being over fucked or under fucked. I don’t feel like I have a greater authority to speak about it than anyone else. I just kind of get my divining rod out, and it leads me to that source.
It is the one aspect of our character that we don’t have control over. You can’t decide who you lust after. Western society is obsessed with the logistical practicalities of our being, and how we can put things in safe places, but this is one aspect of our psyche that we can not control. It constantly confounds us and trips us up. In some respects, it completely empowers and surprises us, though, you know?
I can’t separate music and sex. They’re different expressions of the same thing. They engage a part of us that has to be satiated, that has to be nourished.
You once said, “When you think about sex, you’ve got to think about death, they’re one and the same.” What did you mean?
They are the beginning and the end. Procreation is the beginning, and death is the end. It’s a very plain life cycle in some respects. Nothing will make you more aware of your mortality and decay than sex. All of us of a certain age are terrified of a prospect of a sexless future. Maybe I shouldn’t say all of us, though. Maybe that’s not the fear for everyone, but it is for me.
You’ve called Boy King a record that you’ve been trying to make for 15 years – and that, to a certain extent, it’s the bands masterwork. Why?
As teenagers we were exposed to the nu-metal era, which came from some really inspiring things like Nine Inch Nails and Deftones, but as these things do, the idea of what it was supposed to be became corrupt. We kind of deliberately took a very severe left from that, and became this very effeminate, fey art band.
We took such a severe left that we almost did a severe u-turn and came back. That’s the sensation: The migration of coming back to where we left off as teenagers. But it’s still the same response – it’s just become the thing. It’s like if you tell the joke long enough, you become the joke.
I became aware that I am that preposterous guy in the rock band. In itself, it’s a pretty compelling skin to live in. It rubs me up in ways that sometimes I feel great about, and then sometimes I feel pretty indifferent about it. In a way, it’s something I can draw from.