INTERVIEW

From their 2008 debut to ‘Present Tense’, their fourth album, released earlier in 2014, Wild Beasts have remained nomadic in song as much as anything else

wildbeasts

Cut adrift in Kendal, disenchanted in Leeds, and faced with the fear and loathing of London, geography has played a central part in Wild Beasts’ history. Half-heartedly thrown in with the (thankfully) defunct ‘Gangs of New Yorkshire’ scene, courtesy of their tenuous Leeds connection, Wild Beasts have survived the cynical scenes, outlasted the buzz bands and stayed committed to stubbornly making it work wherever and however they can. In fact, their transience has probably helped them not just survive but endure.

After touring themselves into oblivion from the release of their 2008 debut album, ‘Limbo Panto’, to the gruelling end of ‘Smother’ (the band’s third and last LP, of 2011), I’m sat with one of British guitar music’s quieter success stories in a pub in South East London, just around the corner from the Deptford studio where their latest album, ‘Present Tense’, was recorded. Now with semi-permanent roots in London, Hayden Thorpe, Tom Fleming, Chris Talbot and Ben Little’s latest migration over the north/south divide feels like a natural, almost inevitable, culmination of Wild Beasts’ wonderfully nomadic habit. But even though they seem to have settled in the likeliest of concrete jungles, they’re still a band that proudly defies definition with every release.

“That was absolutely the climate we came up in, but I don’t think we’ve ever had to survive a scene because I don’t think we’ve ever been cool enough,” says Thorpe. “What we do is probably always going to be, and always has been, divisive enough to create a healthy and unhealthy distance for us to not have to rely on that. In our early days we’d probably have loved to have been in a scene to give us a piggyback but we had to brave it out and we’re better for it, and have independence in that sense.

“There was that New Yorkshire thing,” he smiles, “and it was quite shocking at the time because I’d left Kendal feeling a little burnt that we couldn’t make it work. The ideal was that we would develop in our own little pocket but then to arrive in Leeds and be so disenchanted with everything around you was quite devastating. We almost proofed ourselves because we had to. Lad-proofing might be too strong a term, because our music was never going to be sung from the terraces, but it was about the terraces, and there’s something beautiful about that.”

“I do think we feel a great kinship with Leeds,” says Fleming, “but I feel like if we’d started to come up now, in Leeds, no-one would give a fuck, and that’s a shame. We were lucky enough that the attention was there at the time and we were visible enough, and maybe those opportunities aren’t there right now. I always really enjoy playing in Manchester because there would be kids at our gigs almost clutching their library books, and lads with their arms around each other singing their hearts out. I’m no Oasis fan but that’s the environment we came from and we have some of that in our DNA.”

After emerging with the bold concepts, ball-gripping falsettos and flowery, outsider pop of ‘Limbo Panto’, the band hurtled into the sexual restlessness of ‘Two Dancers’ (2009) and then almost immediately stripped everything back for the understated beauty of ‘Smother’. It marked a particularly gruelling period of tireless touring and relentless recording that, Thorpe admits, left the band desperate for a break. “I think we were pretty burnt out at the end of ‘Smother’ because ‘Two Dancers’ bled into that the same way ‘Limbo Panto’ had bled into ‘Two Dancers’. From 2007 to 2011 it was about four years of complete transient life. There was this lack of stillness, and it was very tumultuous, but I think we’ve instilled a sense of clarity on the new record.”

Energised by a newfound permanence, the band set up in the capital and stepped back. But the move to London was as much a mental leap of faith as it was a logistical one. “I was fucking terrified of London,” says Thorpe, “especially in the early days of the band. It felt like the epitome of being corrupted, that that would be it; we’d all have to get jobs to try and afford to live here. That was the outside fear. Would it still be about the music or would we disappear down crack pipes?” he laughs.

“I think when we had the little studio in Kendal, there was a sense of staying put and just doing it there, where in London there was a sense of righteousness that we could command the world from here. This was HQ. I think the thing about being in London is that you can never really feel like you’ve outgrown it; it swallows you and you just crawl back out.”

Characterised by the electronic production of Lexx and Leo Abrahams, new album ‘Present Tense’ feels like a record under the influence of the city and its constant, bedroom-produced heartbeat, but with Thorpe’s domineering voice, Fleming’s baritone counter balance, and the measured, tumbling melodies, it’s still definitively, instinctively, Wild Beasts, just, as always, with a slightly different pulse.

“We started off being proud purveyors of the organic instrument, as it were,” says Thorpe. “We always write songs from an emotional stand point and I think there’s still a bit of sensuality in them, but the sonics you can achieve with electronic instruments can be far more vivid and widescreen than what we can do with guitars. We work in the dark a lot with electronic instruments because we’re not geeky in how they work; we just know they work and our world becomes a lot richer and a bit more evocative through those sounds.”

“There’s always a temptation to try and over-perfect, which is something we tried to avoid,” adds Fleming. “It also means that when something new comes into the song you can really hear it. There’s no decoration for the sake of it, so with the drums, and even some of the lyrics, they’re quite simple and dubbed, but just because it’s straighter doesn’t mean it’s necessarily simplistic.”

Simplistic isn’t an accusation levelled at Wild Beasts with any real conviction, but as Thorpe explains, their principles of finding the balance between analogue and electronic had to be perfect for them to feel credible pushing a more overt electronic sound. As he puts its: “If you work as we do, you can’t confuse what a human has to do and what a computer can do well. A computer is only used if it’s something a human can’t do and vice versa. Singing in a heartfelt way through a computer is quite a difficult thing to pull off, and I think if we started to get involved in vocoders or those kinds of things it would have been quite hard to remain believable.

“When a song is ready and right, it has a nature to it that you can’t describe,” he says. “It’s more of a gut thing, and it’s where our expertise comes in. What we’re good at, and should be good at, is knowing and judging whether it’s right. In some ways it’s a bit rough, and a bit ugly, but in other ways it’s incredibly graceful and touching. Ultimately, I think if we compared the computer-based versions to the ones we’d done at the end, our versions are never as near or tidy or correct but they’re always far more moving.”

It takes us into a discussion about the depth and space on the album, with the electronic ripple of ‘Daughters’, the moody, minimal discordance of ‘A Dog’s Life’, and the heavy keys of lead single ‘Wanderlust’ pulling the production into even sharper focus.

“That’s something that Lexx and Leo said, actually,” Fleming agrees. “It was about defending the space and it requires a bit of discipline to do that and say, ‘it’s done, leave it alone’. I’d like to say we do that all the time but we don’t, so having that sense of space was something that was crucial on the record.”

Thorpe says: “There’s also a crucial point towards the end of recording songs where people go from saying, ‘this needs this’ to ‘it doesn’t need this’. It’s a reversal where you almost can’t put enough clothes on it but then end up ripping them off the other way. Eventually there’s no-one else left in the room saying it needs anything and it becomes an unspoken understanding.”

Perhaps that’s why ‘Present Tense’ feels like Wild Beasts’ most accessible album to date. Where the ostentatious flourishes and literate flamboyance brazenly took centre stage, their latest work feels measured; controlled, even. That’s not to say they’ve dispensed with the qualities that made them so enthralling in the first place; it’s more the case that they’ve taken real ownership of their music and polished the alternative pop tropes into something increasingly refined.

“I don’t think we’ve been brave enough, or willing enough, to put something like this, out there,” says Thorpe. “I take that as a compliment to be honest because I think part of having to make the leap is to step into dangerous territory. We’ve always said we make pop music until we’re blue in the face and I think a lot of the songs had the potential to tip into syrupy, over sentimental… ergh… mess?” he laughs. “I think we also got quite tired of having our songs carved up, or having thirty seconds knocked off just for radio edits. If you’ve made a piece of work, you think it’s right as it is, so it was almost a way of reclaiming our work and saying if that’s how it has to exist, we’re going to have total control over it, and it doesn’t have to be denatured or butchered to fit in those parameters.”

So at four albums in, and a slew of defunct contemporaries resigned to dusty CD shelves and forgotten iTunes playlists, you could excuse Wild Beasts for feeling a little self-satisfied. Smug, even. They’re not. Instead, the creature fear that’s compelled them to make it this far is both as fragile and fierce as it’s ever been.

“You’ve got to make your peace with never doing it again,” says Fleming, “and we’d done that already. The first record cost quite a lot of money to make and didn’t sell very much so it’s always in our consciousness that this might be the last record we make.”

“I think you also accept that as a musician you exist in two year lifecycles,” says Thorpe. “You don’t really see your life beyond that because the next two years will define who you are and that’s kind of the beauty of it. We’re of the mind frame that your old work is worth shit, in the now, and you have absolutely no reliance on what’s gone before when it comes to the quality of your work. To us, you’re one step from oblivion or one step from triumph. The margins are that close.”

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