"We Became the Band We Set Out Against": An Interview with Wild Beasts
"This album is the first time where someone says, 'Hey, I like the sound of you guys. What are you called?' And I'd say Wild Beasts. And they'd say, 'Oh, obviously.'"
Wild Beasts had to stir things up for their own benefit. The Kendal-born art rock quartet have enjoyed a celebrated career praised by both critics and audiences alike, all while incrementally changing their sound without ever compromising their artistic integrity. Their fifth full-length release, Boy King, comes close to inverting this framework, taking a more daring step into a more commanding form of synth-rock that flirts with pop sensibilities even further.
Hayden Thorpe seems non plussed about the commercial opportunities of Boy King. Thorpe, an integral part of Wild Beasts' entire aesthetic alongside band member Tom Fleming, remains staunchly committed to maintaining a process that works for them. "I feel like music engages my heart before it does my mind, so it needs to satiate my heart first and foremost," he says with poise and cordiality.
Boy King is a slight change of pace for Wild Beasts. It's forceful, challenging, and engages in intellectual themes even if it prioritizes rhythm and groove over anything else. Thorpe has a way of articulating his thoughts in a very roundabout way, though through a certain fragmented logic he always seems to clarify his own ideas. "Do you seek out a higher minded love, or do you seek out that primal, carnal affection," he says, a response to how Boy King explores the male romantic psyche. He follows: "We are taught to tame ourselves, to tame our primal functions in favor of a higher minded sense of self. This album doesn't abide by those rules and puts its body first and its mind after."
These questions are constantly in flux throughout Boy King, a visceral statement that isn't afraid to keep things a little bit messy and unpolished. "I put my demons in the wash, in the hope that good things will come out," he states with marked emphasis. "Having all these albums you realize these stains don't come out. They're pretty stubborn."
Boy King addresses many tangled and intricate concepts, some of which may provoke some ire to those who may misconstrue the album's apparent take on male chauvinism. Thorpe is quick to point out how the album itself is a response to their own identity as a unit: "There's a reclaiming of a chauvinism in a sense that my intent here is good," he clarifies. "It's not an album in defense of men. But it's interesting that there's feminism and there's no masculinism, in that for the most part we are enabled to defend ourselves because we're unable to reengage on the kind of emotional level that might allow us to with respect."
As with Wild Beasts' identity as a unit, Boy King also wrestles with this notion of what a Wild Beasts album has to sound like. Thorpe indirectly references his own struggles as a performer, equipped with a powerfully seductive falsetto that has been a point of contention ever since they began their career. "It's a very personal record in that I have, in my life, struggled with aspects of what I am supposed to be. Am I this chauvinistic kind of peacock who sings in a band, or am I supposed to be this hyper-masculine, larger-than-life male projection who is singing in a band, and therefore, has to move around the world in a group-filled orgy? Or am I just the guy who kind of looks like every other human being, who looks for care and affection? It's a sadistic human notion of love. The dualism of the album is, do I want to be the king who will conquer, or do i want to be the boy who needs looking after?"
Boy King does share a correlation with past efforts even if it doesn't sound the same: it's just as open-hearted and vulnerable as previous efforts, this time opting for a more machismo-driven stance even if it doesn't necessarily betray the fraught identity of albums like Smother and Present Tense. He's just channeling things in a different direction. "I think this album is an embracing of the fact that this is how I'm going to wear it now," he says with some authority. "This is how it looks, and I am not going to be ashamed of it. There's always a lot of emotional agony in all our records. You got the kind of agony that you dance with. Kind of like saying, 'Okay, this is fucked. Let's dance.'"
There's an almost apocalyptic mood to Boy King's infectious and mutated rhythms, which couldn't have been possible without the use of electronics. Seeing as Wild Beasts have played with many different variations throughout the years, from pulsing Afro-beat to meditative ambiance, this current, synth pop-led incarnation has not only ornamented their sound but served as the main backbone of their later material. Thorpe, however, ascribes it to convenience. "My use of electronics is because of my habit of laziness, to tell you the truth," he says. "I always find electronic equipment satiates my need to get something down quicker, so any tune that reduces the length between the spark of an idea and its realization is kind of a friend for me."
The course one takes to get things done does influence one's ability to accomplish things. In the case of Wild Beasts, they enlisted Grammy-winning producer John Congleton to help bring that vision to life - and a dramatic change of location. "I loved Dallas. Wholeheartedly. I left a part of myself there, which I think tapped into an aspect of myself I didn't I had," he explains with a pleasure in his voice. "It wasn't a natural habitat for four guys who work in bohemian London. It felt so alien. So out of place. It has a beaming shininess of that American vision of a future built in the eighties, with the blue skies in the skyscrapers."
Thorpe does romanticize his temporary visit with a vigor that is refreshing. Visiting Dallas disrupted the band's usual recording process, seeing the change of pace as an asset, something that just hadn't been an option before. "I went there with few expectations. I went there with this regime notion of getting an album done, and then kind of getting out military mission style," Thorpe notes.
Congleton's more idiosyncratic approach was integral to the band's recording process. "John doesn't have a hierarchy of sound," he emphasizes. "He recognizes that there's no need to spend the time huddled over some museum piece of equipment, trying to get some misplaced concept of what a sound should be or wasting time on what it should be, when the beauty of music comes is in its architectural makeup. Not everything has to be shiny and functional to sound good".
Despite all the stylistic changes found in Boy King, it appears as if Thorpe is fully comfortable embracing whatever interpretation anyone ascribes to Wild Beasts. "There's a lovely and beautiful symmetry to this album," he says with a knowing assurance. "When we became a band we set out an objection to those kind of classic macho tropes. This kind of fake effeminate art band as a response to the kind of grunginess that we cannot group around. We grew up around a lot of crunchy guitars, and all that angst and posturing that we completely axed which Nine Inch Nails kind of brought."
He continues with characteristic candor: "This time we became the band we set out against. This album is the first time where someone says, 'Hey, I like the sound of you guys. What are you called?' And I'd say Wild Beasts. And they'd say, 'Oh, obviously.' Previously, that same scenario would happen and they'd say, 'Oh, you don't sound like Wild Beasts.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, it's kind of ironic.' But now we fucking sound like a band called Wild Beasts."