Interview

Hayden Thorpe: the pastoral life

For the latest edition of our My Place feature, Hayden Thorpe shows us around his childhood home in Kendal, where he's been reconnecting with nature

Hayden Thorpe, in his own words, is sweating his tits off. It’s high summer in Kendal, and the town’s stoutly-built stone houses, designed to withstand the long Cumbrian winter, keep the heat firmly inside. “I’m in the attic, and under the rafters, it’s an oven,” he laments. 

He wasn’t meant to be here. Having spent a decade in London, as the UK’s exit from the EU approached, he was preparing to leave the capital and move to continental Europe, partly for the change of scenery, partly because life as a touring musician there looked, as it continues to, like a more viable occupation than it does in Britain. You can probably guess what got in the way.

“The virus shut down the world, and I got stranded,” he says. “By chance I ended up back here; my dad still lives here but his partner lives in Australia, so he’s out there during this time. So I re-entered the womb of my becoming, if I can put it so poetically.” 

Fortunately, the move home seems to have worked out. Having partially written and recorded his second solo album Moondust For My Diamond in this house, along with sessions in Leeds and London, the former Wild Beasts frontman is audibly delighted to have had the chance to reconnect with the place he grew up, and its surrounding countryside in particular. 

“Kendal’s got the right balance of mundanity and magic. Sadly, the high street is fading into the same generic shape as so many others, but then again, I can walk ten minutes up the road into a UNESCO world heritage site.

“One thing I’d lost and didn’t realise as a young adult who’d left this space was an automatic connection to nature. That’s been a revelation. And now I can’t see myself doing without that. I’ve realised that to dedicate your art to a square mile of woodland, or a vista in the mountains or anything like that, is a lifetime’s work. You could literally spend a lifetime’s attention on a single tree; as a solo artist at a time when cults of personality are so strong, to have that freedom to find such interest and wonder in things that aren’t myself is a gift. There’s only so much about myself I can find interesting. I think that I’m far more interesting when I’m in this landscape. 

“There’s a point where you find people more fascinating than nature. But that can flip, and you find this tree far more charming and better company than most of humanity.” He stifles a laugh at his nature-boy misanthropy, and the tour begins. 

The teenage studio

This is the attic room where Benny (Little) and I first set up a studio for Wild Beasts. It’s the room that’s the furthest away from anyone else in the house, the first private space I ever had. There’s some of our graffiti on the wall: a signature – I had to do a “woz here”; a dandelion, which actually looks quite beautiful from a couple of stoned teenagers; some logos for the band, when we were called Fauve, which is French for “wild beast”. 

When I moved back, I began by clearing out the attic and making some room for myself again, piecing back together the family home in quite a ceremonious way; my dad’s the last person living here, and that person is the caretaker for all the detritus of a family. It’s quite beautiful to re-enter that space, and honour it and modernise it.

School photos

Judging by the pimply forehead and the crew cut, I think I’m about 14 or 15, and probably pretty adamant that I’m gonna lead an athletic life, but that my gift on the field was yet to be fully awoken, just the next kick away. But that wasn’t meant to be. It’s one of those fringe times where you start to realise that your energies are finite and you’d better dedicate it to something, and maybe not to the thing that you had always wanted it to be. 

This is a photo of me at a school that didn’t always do me well, but always meant me well. I think as someone who went to a Northern comprehensive at that time, in the ’90s, it felt optimistic and aspirational. But the academy system, university tuition fees… it doesn’t feel like that anymore. It is a generational loss for this country.

The print room

I’ve re-appropriated the living room as my print room. One of the by-products of lockdown was that I’ve started to make prints quite intuitively, without really knowing what I was doing. I’ve been using lino prints, which is when you use a tool to excavate rubber and you make the print using that, so I’ve been creating these aerial landscapes – to go with the aerial songs ep I made last year – contour lines. Starting out copying a map and then the hand starts to guide itself. It’s quite a meditative practice, just letting the contours develop as you feel it. A lot of eastern printmaking has these spiritual connections; next to it is this marbled paper, this Japanese process I’ve been trying out called suminagashi, where you put the ink onto water and create these patterns; the water dictates the patterns and you have to be patient and gentle enough to allow that to happen. 

It’s a way of doing work that isn’t musical and doesn’t have the same importance. It’s strange when your great passion suddenly becomes your business… your escape becomes your way back in. It’s important to have side hustles, to make work with it not really mattering. But it becomes a really beautiful way of connecting with people who my music resonates with, because there’s no middleman, it requires no upload or download. If people want them, I just post them to them. 

Mum’s allotment

I wouldn’t say I’m a gardener but I spend a lot of time in gardens. That’s my mum’s allotment, down the alley at the back of the house. You have an automatic connection to nature in this part of the world – I feel passionately for the pastoral life, there’s a lot to be said for it. After a decade of emphasis on city life, and the virtue of city life, of the cream rising to the top and that always being in the city, I’m having to reorder that for myself. 

Yesterday I ate lettuce from that allotment with my lunch. When you work with allotments – well, I don’t work a lot with them, I just eat a lot from them – you understand how every morsel of, say, a beetroot or a courgette has quite a high energy exchange; you know, this has taken months. With the abundance we live amongst, you lose the sense of that exchange between sunlight, life and eating; growing things attaches you to a real sense of time – this is how long things take to grow, and live, and die. Most of your life we spend in completely invented timelines – the second and the hour – quantifying our times with quite abstract things, and we forget the very real timelines happening all around us. 

17 years’ worth of notebooks

Packing up all of my things to move house, I realised I’d kept every notebook I’d had since I was 18. It’s not actually that big a box if you think that’s 17 years of work, of dedication to scribbling. It’s a very precious thing to me. There’s some absolute nonsense in there, some quite cool things in there; now having amassed that stuff, my main observation is how little of it there is, how really when you’re creating work, you only ever really keep 1% of what you come across and it’s about choosing from those things. 

I recognise the journey I was on then, because I’m still on it. Trying to carve the right word out, I recognise that because I’m still at the same rock face. It feels clumsy or crude at times, but those times are crude and clumsy. This time still is, just in different ways. I recognise the hand, but I don’t bestow too much value; I don’t think back too fondly, in a nostalgic way. I’ve actually got some demos from way back at the start on Minidisc – when I’m brave enough I’ll venture back into them.

They say your cells are completely remade every seven years, so that’s twice over now since I lived here and started writing these. But it’s kind of an honour to go back into the family home as an adult in this way. It’s not meant to happen – you’re meant to leave home, start the band, take over the world, live in perpetual sunshine. But exploring that not-meant-to-happen-ness is so rich. 

Postman Pat

Postman Pat should probably be more of a cult figure in this town. That’s about the sum total of it – that plaque. But Postman Pat was written on my road, and that’s the post office that inspired it. When quite remarkable things happen in quite mundane environments, you cling onto them as beacons of possibility, you mythologise. John Cunliffe, who wrote Postman Pat, should probably have his own statue in Kendal. 

I used to buy my sweets from that post office, every Friday, with my 50p. That would get you a decent amount of tooth rot, which I’m still paying for now. 

Merch HQ

That is the print room again. That’s now my merch HQ. I’m very much of the opinion that the world is already too full of stuff, so if I’m gonna put more stuff into it, I’d better care about it and devote some time to it. That goes for the print – if I’m gonna sell you a print, I will make it, I will hand print it; if I’m gonna sell you a t-shirt, I’ll make sure it’s not been made in a sweatshop or cost the earth. I’m using local businesses – the paper for the prints is made at a local factory, the t-shirts are printed down by the river here in Kendal. In a global world, we still live so locally. I’ve been localising the work too; Leonard Cohen always said it’s about the detail – you have to name the colour of the raincoat to be able to harness the imagination. 

Guitars

I don’t play these guitars much really, they’re just objects I like to have around. When you have totem instruments you get a bit ruthless and leave stuff behind. They’re good company. 

The good thing is if you write songs and you play bass in a band, you get to write more parts – “Here’s a guitar part and here’s a bass part and I’ll sing it” – especially in a very democratic band like we were. I definitely understand music better for having played bass, and I only did it out of necessity, because the others were way better at guitar than me. It’s a bit docile now and I haven’t had the compulsion to pick it up. 

It’s a dream of mine to have musicians come here to create. It’s so normal for studios to just be these blackout rooms, with generic equipment in, and it feels so un-colourful. It’d be great to see how other artists work in the space. Fab (Fabian Prynn, drummer-producer on Moondust For My Diamond) actually came up and visited last month; I did the good Lake District Sherpa thing, which is to take people just far enough up a mountain to get scared, just far enough into a lake to get cold, then ply them with really good beer.

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