Wild Beasts are truly unique. The strained hyperbole of PR agencies might have rendered a statement like that unexceptional, but amongst the congested maelstrom of modern music and its fleeting frenzies, how often do you really hear something authentically fresh? How many albums have you heard this year that offer only the scantest musical reference points, by virtue of being entirely their own? How many contemporary bands can you think of that genuinely, without exaggeration, sound like no other? I can think only of a diminutive handful, and Wild Beasts are one of the few clasped in that particular palm.
Some would have you believe that it’s Hayden Thorpe irrepressible, glass-bothering falsetto that ekes out their spot on your memory, but that particular idiosyncrasy is but one card in a pack of inimitable flourishes. Thorpe’s exuberant whinny, pitted against bassist Tom Fleming’s more restrained and, frankly, quite charming Cumbrian brogue, form the dual means to deliver a cavalcade of vicarious characters, from licentious womanizers to elegiac street thugs to pie-pilfering football fans.
That all sounds outrageously theatrical and, on 2008’s arresting debut Limbo, Panto, it most definitely was. But this year’s follow-up, Two Dancers, cranked out while the iron was still steaming, is altogether more collected. It sees the band stripped back to its bare instrumental essentials and evolving a winning counterpoise to Fleming’s and Thorpe’s vocal flamboyance. A pulsing bassline here, a skittery drumbeat there, implausibly yet subtly infectious hooks everywhere—Two Dancers carries no excess weight, and is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear all year. It is, to misquote a lyric of Thorpe’s own, a record as elegant as it is ugly, brooding with lascivious menace while at the same moment whisking the breath from your lungs with the measured textured of its own magnificent sound.
In wake of extensive critical acclaim for Two Dancers and ahead of their latest tour, PopMatters chatted with Fleming about Springsteen, hedonism and drowning rats ...
First things first: Two Dancers is easily one of my favourite records of this year and I know I’m not alone in that respect; you must be happy with how it has been received?
Yeah, absolutely—and thank you. I think we kind of gave people a bit more rope on this record; I think we sorted out better what we were and we learned from our experiences and thought ‘Well, let’s just make a record. Let’s not try and make a definitive Wild Beasts record, let’s try and make a record.’ And I think that kind of narrowing of parameters helps—if you have all the options in the world, you’re going to make a mess of it, you know? We realized how small ideas can be, if that makes sense. You don’t need a lot of ideas to make those ideas run.
Is there anything in particular you wanted to do differently on this record compared to Limbo, Panto?
We had the idea of it being a continuous album—because we’d started to do that with the live set, we were kind of segueing songs into each other and that kind of thing. So we wanted it to be continuous and we quickly realized that it wasn’t actually going to work like that, but we could maybe get a sense of that, that some of the songs would cohere together so that there would be a sort of constant thread through it. I don’t think Limbo, Panto was an indulgent record, but I think even more so this time we wanted to tone it down. Like, we wanted the songs to be shorter and more concise; less chords and less words.
Why did you originally want Two Dancers to flow as one continuous piece?
I’m not sure ... I think we wanted to give people the chance to see it as an album, if you know what I mean? Obviously, people have the power to cherry-pick whatever they want to listen to and to skip or whatever, but you need to kind of set the stall out how you mean to carry on, you need to kind of direct people to the fact that this is an album. Plus, you get a lot more space on an album—you can say a lot more and every small thing can impact upon something else. Whereas if you’ve only got a three minute song ... while there’s a great load of fun and challenge in sticking that into that small section, it’s very difficult and inevitably things are getting missed. So, we wanted to kind of lead people to maybe see this as an album—whether they do or not is entirely up to them, of course.
Do you think it is even more important to restate the value of an album in today’s musical climate?
Well, I think that’s what we did. With a lot of my favorite albums, you have to kind of give them time and listen to them as one to kind of get hold of what they are about. I mean, there’s loads of music I like which you don’t need to do that to, where it isn’t appropriate, but this is the way we thought was best and what we thought we’d do.
What kind of music do you guys listen, out of interest? Because I think with a lot of bands you can almost draw your own conclusions in that respect from how they sound, and I don’t find that to be the case at all with you.
Oh, thank you—that’s a big compliment. To be honest, we probably cover loads of bases between us. This record was very much influenced by dance music, like techno and trance, and the way that’s constructed, on top of big ‘80s and ‘70s pop records—something like Rumours, or Born in the USA. Those kind of records mixed with a kind of dance music and mixed, I suppose, with a kind of singer-songwriter thing, which I still think we’re always kicking against but we’re always aware of. It is hard to get away from as a young man, if you’re making guitar music, because you kind of think of, you know, bearing your soul, getting the girls. It’s very attractive, but it’s something we guarded against. In fact, that’s something we did on this record as well—we were more at home taking on those sort of themes, like love and sexuality. We felt like we had to kind of earn the right to talk about them.
Anyway, like I say, we do cover a lot of bases between us. The van is very much a democracy. So, for example, a solo black metal might not be played in the van, whereas as something like the Best of Wu-Tang might get played. We’re all very interested in music; we all keep our ears to the ground.
It is not really surprising to hear you say that you all cover different bases, because your music kind of sounds like each person is coming from a different direction with the instrument they play. Every individual seems to stand out, and you can sort of sense in a single song the different elements of different genres and tastes that come from that.
Thanks—that’s cool, that’s really nice. We want it to be textural and 3-D, you know what I mean? It is in the arrangements. The thing is that everything has been done, in guitar band terms. We’ve got a very standard set-up in that sense—we’re a four-piece band playing “real” instruments and you have to find ways of using them to extend their range.
How does the songwriting process generally pan out for you?
Generally, it has been that either Hayden or I will come up with a seed or an acorn and we’ll take it to the band and it’ll get dragged in all sorts of different directions in practice and then at the end we’ll come out with something. Maybe it retains the essence of what it was but has gone somewhere else, and we’ll go through alternative versions sometimes—that kind of thing. But in general it’s kind of a process of responding to each other and I think that’s something that we want to run with—to almost get rid of that songwriterly aspect, where it becomes more of an instantaneous thing and perhaps bring the moment of what we were doing. Because, inevitably, the more you try and compose something the more all these lovely accidents get lost, and that’s the essence of playing in a band, really—that there’s more irons in the fire. So however talented you are, you can always learn something.
Who writes your lyrics?
In general, it’ll be if Hayden’s singing something, he’s written it, and if I’m singing something, I’ve written it, which is again something we’re trying to break down. That’s how it has gone, so far.
And where’s your inspiration drawn from, lyrically? It seems like you’re stimulated by certain types of people, maybe, that you encounter and then turn into these lurid, almost romanticized character portraits.
I think you’ve got it there, yeah. For example, I was talking about Springsteen before and Springsteen talks about all these kind of images of the road and the car and the river, being working class and what have you, those kind of things. And we’re trying to make our own kind of mythology, which we don’t really have, I don’t think, in Britain, or in northern rural Britain—we just don’t have it, it is not available to us. And I’m sure if you go to the river than Bruce Springsteen’s talking about you’d go, ‘Fucking hell, is that it?’ But you’ve got to dignify these things—it’s no good just to say them, just to say, ‘Oh, I was walking down the street and I’ve been working in a chip shop.’ That kind of dour stuff, we like to tell stories with it. Everyone’s a character in their own novel, you know what I mean? You can’t think of yourself as anything else.
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