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.
Hedonism seems to be a recurring theme…
Hedonism seems to be a recurring theme in Two Dancers and, I suppose, your music in general. What draws you towards that?
I’m not even sure. I think it’s all kind of pleasure in its aftermath. There’s nothing worse that somebody who says, ‘Oh everything’s going to be fine’, because everything’s not going to be fine — things are going to be difficult. But you learn ways to deal with it and in that way pleasure always suggests its opposite. And also, I mean, we’re young men … hedonism does play part. If you’re young men in a band, it’s expected of you and inevitably you’ll find yourself in situations which you probably don’t want to be in! So I think hedonism is about more than fun.
Yeah, this album does seem darker, almost like it’s the comedown after Limbo, Panto‘s party …
Yeah, I think that is there. That was something that was accidental, as well. When I heard the record back, it was very kind of up-and-down and that was kind of unexpected, actually.
When you guys first started making a name for yourselves, were you expecting people to be so taken aback? Did you realize at all just how much you stood out?
No, I didn’t actually. Genuinely, I still, to this day, can’t imagine why people have such trouble. We thought [Limbo, Panto] was a pop record, we thought it was concise, and it was supposed to be kind of a fun record. It was strange, especially when a lot of the music I was listening, and still am, was American — as most people’s is — and there is a lot more space there for much more adventurous stuff to go on. Whereas there is kind of a set-up for what a British band should sound like, if they want to do anyway, already in place. We’ve got loads of music in Britain, but if you want to above a certain level you’re expected to sound a certain way. We didn’t want to play that game. So I was surprised, but I’m also quite surprised at how well this one’s going, as well. I’m quite touched by it, really, because it does seem to be having an effect on people — you know, not just like, ‘Oh, these guys are massive’, it’s more like people are actually listening to it, which is awesome.
Yeah. I think even more so than the first album, Two Dancers strikes me just as being a great record quite apart from the fact that it’s different from what else is around. I think it’s more complete and it’s cuts a little deeper.
It is a more adult record, I think. When we started to make it we were aware that it was going to be a very different matter, in that sense. You experience a lot in those times and you learn a lot, musically and personally — you’re not kids anymore. You have to kind of say, ‘Well are we doing this or are we fucking doing this?’ We’re just getting better, you know? We’re kind of becoming the most us we can be. Because that’s something I’ve learned; you don’t get better, you just get more you, you get better at being you.
This record does seem like you’re more comfortable in your own skin.
Yes. When you get a round of reviews, whether they’re good or bad they are inevitably different to what you’d think. You have to kind of take them on board and then you worry about it and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m vulnerable here’, which you don’t really broach until you release something and then suddenly you’re in a position of power and a position of vulnerability. It’s always hanging by a very thin thread. So you have to kind of just take the view that you know best, because if you’re not sure then how can anyone else be sure? You just have to knuckle down, really.
You played your first shows in America earlier this year. How have people been receiving you over there?
You know what — absolutely brilliantly. I really couldn’t believe it, how good it was. All the questions that were asked of us, all the sort of confusion when we first started up in Britain was just not there. People just kind of got it; people knew where we were coming from. Plus we had the exotica of being a British band, as well, and I suppose kind of sounding British. But they’ve been really, really wonderful, really, really supportive and we’ve met some great people as well. The thing about Americans is that they’re not afraid to be passionate about something, either. They don’t keep their cards close to their chest, so you know a bit better what you’re getting, it seems. It’s a wonderful place and I was very jealous of what the Americans had in terms of music culture when I went there. Which I’m sure we all are [Laughs].
So you’re not having to go through the whole process of everyone making a big deal of Hayden’s voice all over again, I take it?
No … well, there are occasions of it. The thing is, of course, it’s our second record so we can go over as almost fully formed and we haven’t had to do all this groundwork. There are some people who can’t get the voice, but this is a country who in recent years have produced people like Anthony Hegarty and Joanna Newsom, so they’re quite used to what is essentially pop music having challenging vocals — and much more challenging than Hayden’s. I was surprised by the reaction to Hayden’s voice, first off. I was last to join the band and I had heard Hayden sing and stuff and I thought he was excellent. But, you know, obviously I think it’s good… But no, people seemed intrigued by what we were doing, I think. Like I was I was saying, when you’re armed with being a kind of “proper” band and you’re not just starting up, you don’t need to kind of make those points; you’ve got two records to sit on, so you’re already kind of a concern.
Did it bother you at all how much of a big deal people made about Hayden’s voice? Because it’s not like it’s the only talking point in your music…
Well, at the time I was like, ‘Oh come on, mention something else, buy a new hat,’ you know? But looking back I think actually he got us a hell of a lot of attention, because even people who didn’t like us were covering us. I would say I do admire Hayden for just taking it on the chin, moving on and forgetting about it. Because it’s quite a lot to take when basically all and sundry are advising you to stop singing, or sing less, you can imagine him sort of shrinking back from that, but he didn’t one bit.
The attention does seem strange when you consider how over-the-top Matt Bellamy’s vocals are and then Muse are one of the biggest band’s in the world …
[Laughs] Exactly, yeah. It is strange, isn’t it? The way I look at Hayden’s voice — and obviously I’m going to big up my own band here — is it may sound over-the-top but it’s what it suggests that make it more than that. It’s like the difference between, say, metal and noise-rock; they’re both loud and aggressive and noisy, but one suggests something and the other doesn’t. By doing something over-the-top you’re not necessarily trying to achieve the over-the-top effect.
You sing more on Two Dancers yourself than before. Is that because of the direction the music went it?
Possibly. I think we kind of learnt, like I said, about where we were as a band. On the first record to an extent me and Hayden kind of became these two poles; we represented certain types of characters, I guess. We made characters for ourselves and then fitted into them and on this record we’ve done that more so. Speaking-wise, mine and Hayden’s voices are reasonably similar, and I think people are surprised. I don’t think I could really sing that low when I joined the band, but you learn. And it requires I different one of us sometimes to stick the knife in, to deliver a certain line, I guess.
Do you write the instrumentation with a vocalist in mind?
We’re trying to. Like I say, at the moment if I write something I’ll sing it; if he writes something, he’ll sing it. But we’re trying to kind of incorporate that. On both records we’ve sort of sat back and looked at what we’ve got and though about how we can take it forward. It’s become that now it’s not really a natural thing; it’s more focused, like ‘OK, what are we actually doing here?’ And I can see us doing that more and more.
There’s a definite poppiness about your music; “Hooting and Howling” or “All the King’s Men” on the new album, for instance. Is that something you intentionally strive for?
We try [to] be concise. We always thought of ourselves as a pop band, unashamedly — like pop in all its multifarious forms, rather than wanting to be massive and make loads money. We just want to make concise music that’s got hooks and is fun to listen to and is accessible — in that sense. So I think it’s intentional, yeah.
Speaking of fun, the “Hooting and Howling” video looks like it would have been a laugh to make …
Fuck me, no! It’s just that I’m a terrible swimmer, personally, and the water was very hot; it was over 40 degrees. We were under lights, which were also hot, and if we splashed too much we’d shatter the lights. And it was just like ‘Again, again, again, again’. And we were weighted down and our instruments were weighted down. Most of the shots we look like drowning rats — and they were the good shots. Hayden was the last in the tank and he was there for ages, mouthing, and so all the dust from our clothes had collected and he was opening his mouth and stuff … it feels like you’ve just come out of the womb when you’re out of that thing. It was an experience … but not one to be repeated.
Finally, then, where do you see yourselves going from here? Can you predict what direction you’ll take with album number three?
It’s very hard to tell. I mean, the beauty of this one, the reason why this one worked, is that we didn’t work out too much in advance. We just kind of did it; we rehearsed for three weeks and then recorded it, and that was our album. I could see us maybe reducing more, there being less and less on the record. Like, all my favorite records at the moment are very spectral; there’s not a lot on them, there’s a lot of space, a lot of suggestion and a lot of promise and then no delivery. But you never know; we might hear something that will blow our minds in the meantime and that might change where we’re going. You’ve just got to be responsive.
What sort of stuff are you listening to at the moment?
I’m always listening to the Junior Boys — I’ve only just got their first album and it’s absolutely glorious. There’s one of those like type stickers on the front that says ‘Like Talk Talk produced by Timbaland’, and apart from that description giving me a hard on it’s very, very apt. That sort of stuff has really got me. Steve Reich I’ve been listening to a lot as well, which is a very, very late discovery for me — I feel a bit embarrassed. I’ve been trying to get the score, but it’s 60 quid, so I was trying to work out what the rhythm was and I feel like I’ve cracked it now. I’m with it, if you know what I mean — it no longer songs like this wash of noise, I can actually pick out what’s going on.