Cheerio Chaps: Wild Beasts Look Back on Each of Their Five Albums

“I think what’s becoming apparent is that people who’ve grown up with our music or spent a long time with it have always been the oddballs or different kinds of people.” – Hayden Thorpe

Feb 23, 2018 Web Exclusive
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When I speak to Hayden Thorpe, co-frontman of Wild Beasts, he sounds exhausted. He has every right to be. We're speaking just after rehearsals for the first of three shows that will almost definitely be the band's last; they've promised that this is not an indefinite hiatus and they won't be reuniting. But he also sounds exhausted in a deeper way.

After 10 years that has seen Wild Beasts move from the fringes of indie rock to the U.K. Top 10, the band that he's devoted his life to is coming to an end in spectacular fashion. Emotions are running high and he is aware of the privilege that the band have been given by ending their career on their own terms. In his words, the three shows are "a divorce, sacking, and funeral, all rolled into one."

What will happen in the future for the four band members is incredibly uncertain but we're not here to talk about that today. Instead, we're here to talk about the history of Wild Beasts from their humble beginnings as the most flamboyant band from Kendall, Cumbria, to the swaggering main-stage rock of 2016's Boy King.

Last Friday the band released their final album, Last Night All My Dreams Came True, via Domino. It was a live in the studio album as part of the Domino Documents series started by Julia Holter's In the Same Room last year. Last Night All My Dreams Came True was recorded over two days at London's RAK Studios and features live in the studio versions of their previous songs. The band's final show was last Saturday, February 17, in London.

Here Thorpe reflects on each of the band's five studio albums. The band also included bassist/singer Tom Fleming, guitarist Ben Little, and percussionist Chris Talbot.

Conrad Duncan (Under the Radar): There's quite a big difference between your early single "Assembly" and the songs on Limbo Panto, when do you think the band found a sound that worked for you?

Hayden Thorpe: Well the oldest song on Limbo Panto is "The Old Dog," which we wrote when we were 17, so we had a template and it was apparent that "Assembly" wasn't appropriate for the record. I guess a song like "The Old Dog" was the skeleton of us and a song like "Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants" is where we started to really become Wild Beasts.

It's a really powerful personal insight into the workings of us at that time, going back over those songs in rehearsals that I haven't played for years and years. With a song like "Brave Bulging...," the sheer physical energy required to play that song is quite extreme and when I play it now, I still get that tremble and that adrenaline rush that reminds me why we did it in the first place. I get that kind of jitteriness, that kind of high as it were. I feel like it was almost a punk response in many ways to the very macho, very sliced-bread world that we grew up in as teenagers. As beautiful as the Lakes are, there is a stoic nature to the place that we were trying to fiercely kick against and that racket we created was our weaponry.

Kendall is a very nice town by any standard so we're talking about the smaller details of places. But what I do understand is that the culture of Cumbria is made up of a very ancient stoic farming mentality; this sort of brooding side, this kind of unnerving stillness, and that is definitely in the fabric of our psyches when we got together. I see it in myself now, sometimes to my great frustration and sometimes to my comfort. I guess with how effeminate I was and how peacocky we were, it was a kind of punk rock, it was our heavy metal or our distortion pedal.

Your vocals are extremely flamboyant or aggressive on that album and they've mellowed a lot since then, was it strange to sing those songs again?

It was a bit odd. I understand myself as being in an absolute fever when we were making Limbo Panto; a sweaty red-faced fever, and I was just desperate to vomit out all that was collected in me from when we started the band at 16. We recorded it at 21 so there's a good five or six years of build-up there. I always understand it from us forming as a band in complete isolation, just as a colony of animals that have been split off from the mainland become these warped and quite strange looking creatures. I always regard us as like that, just stepping out into the light, quite maladjusted and quite misshapen for the functions of the music world.

There were very few boardroom meetings for that album and we were hugely fortunate that the distance between the ideas and the record was slim. When you're 18 making a record, I don't think you know what to be self-conscious about. All I really knew was to play the songs as forcefully and as aggressively as possible and the job was done.

There was a collective, gang mentality to get up and at them, to get in people's faces and we had a kind of defiance as a group. We also had a niggling frustration with what northern comprehensive-school boys were supposed to do in music and it came as a great chagrin to us that we were initially told that we were obviously art-school boys or of money. Both of those things were far from the truth. 

You've described Two Dancers as the record that changed your life, what do you mean by that?

I think it was a lot of people's entry point into our lexicon, into our world, and there was a huge sense of relief that our belief in ourselves and belief that we had something authentic and unique to say had echoed to places we hadn't been. That's how it changed my life. I came to understand how to chisel the stone a little so people could decipher those shapes a little better than on Limbo Panto

I think what's becoming apparent is that people who've grown up with our music or spent a long time with it have always been the oddballs or different kinds of people. It's becoming a point of pride for myself and for everyone else, that this is a kind of language that we have together and Two Dancers was maybe the first time that that language was widely spoken.

It was still very smash and grab. We were rehearsing in a barn on a farm about 20 miles outside of Leeds and I remember vividly us being up there and beginning to uncover the possibilities of ourselves. It was a journey for us as people as much as anything. You're going through this experience together and you're recognizing both the vulnerabilities and the strengths in each other. I guess that record is about us really, my songs are about the guys and their bits are about me in some respects.

And then with Smother, I've always felt that "Albatross" was a very odd change of pace, did you want to come back with something very different to Two Dancers?

I think we did, you only get one go at that little jolt and I guess that song ["Albatross"] was meant to be a sort of hammer to the knee. We were proud of the production on it because we realized that we could be a bit more sculptural about the journey of a song and deliver it in a gentle way. I understood process on Smother a bit more and I understood how to massage ideas into more fully-realized songs. With "Loop the Loop," for example, the whole thing rings like a bell, from the vocals to the bongos to the guitars to the pianos. Everything spoons each other and it's so fluid and together as a song.

Smother definitely feels like Wild Beasts' smoothest album, everything feels like it's working together a lot more

I see what you're saying, the two weeks recording Smother was an absolute joy. We were recording in Snowdonia, it was November, and there was a run of these crisp blue-sky days with snow on the mountains. We were just thrilled to be making this record. We'd only started writing it six weeks earlier so the whole album was written and recorded in two months. We had this world all to ourselves that felt very familiar, being in the mountains, and we felt very much empowered and full of conviction off the back of Two Dancers. There was a sense of togetherness during that time.

Was it always the plan to record quickly?

Recording always happened shockingly quickly for us, we would never suffer from overthink. We'd get everything in place and position ourselves right but then it would come down to being a Polaroid. A lot of preparation but the execution was deliberately unfiltered and not too corrupted because if you're working off instinct and gut response, you're working with truth. I think we were always very fearful of getting too lumped down in overthink because lord knows we had the capabilities for it. 

Then you moved down to London for Present Tense, how did the city shape that album?

I wrote a lot of songs from a really tiny basement flat in Stoke Newington so I was using laptop synths—we no longer had our barn in which we could make an absolute blaring racket. Instead, we had an artsy studio space in Homerton. There was no longer dead sheep lying around waiting to be picked up, as there was with the barn, and it was a slow process. 

We'd all commute from across town and there was a different energy that got into it. I think we also felt frustrated, more thematically, and that eventually led into the work. London is a very capitalist city with a big C and it's difficult for the art to survive there. It's difficult for creatives to get by and we refused to bend our art to fit into that but it meant that the art, as a result, came out more robust and a bit thicker.

It was a slick record. It was well-balanced and if I do anything acoustically, it's usually made up mostly of Present Tense songs. I think that was a result of spending time in the basement flat, in those smaller spaces, and crafting the songs more, rather than bashing them out.

Politics starts to creep into your lyrics on Present Tense, was there ever an interest in using that topic more often?

Personally, no. For me, I've found that when you make music, you're self-medicating. You're putting the oxygen mask to your own face and I always felt that that wasn't the air I needed to breathe. I didn't need to take what was agonizing about the political world and recycle it into myself. What I've been drawn to musically if I felt aggrieved was a more emotional, personal reflection. Personally, I find that I have a much stronger compulsion to write from that sense, rather than from a soapbox.

With "Wanderlust," that was a regurgitation song if I may call it that. It was simply... we scoffed our dinner down and it came straight back up again. It was just a blizzard, with the way it was made and the way it was put together. I'm proud that it's done well for us as a song and yet it's still so raw and spontaneous.

Boy King is your last album and it's also your most divisive with fans, why do you think that is?

I think Limbo Panto was also incredibly divisive so in respects the story arc is quite neat and quite symmetrical. When we were in the kitchen making Boy King, we did up the chili and we did up the salt and some people spat poison and some people recoiled in delight. Our anchor in many ways has been to lay it on thick and to lay it on proud. I can completely understand why it would be our most divisive but it doesn't trouble me as it were.

It's interesting that on Limbo Panto, you were singing about masculinity in a very effeminate way and then on Boy Kingyou're singing about it using the language of masculinity.

I think to battle the monster, you come to resemble it sometimes. There was some shapeshifting going on, that's for sure. Although, what's often forgotten about Boy King being a bit more macho is that it is within the catalogue of Wild Beasts. If you take it to the water, it's incredibly gentle with femininity and vulnerability. 

Personally, it was what I needed at the time. I wanted to be that character. In many ways, it was a slight parody on what bands are supposed to do and what frontmen are supposed to do, and for me, it was an enlightening and life-affirming exercise to see if I could be that guy unapologetically. It was honest artistic exercise, that's for sure.

I remember hearing Wild Beasts in the background of Match of the Day [a U.K. football program] when Boy King was released, was it strange to be reaching that crowd?

Yeah, I guess in some respects it was the snake eating its tail but I'm a firm believer in beauty. This is, if you'll allow me, a more spiritual point. I believe that things can be beautiful for the masses, that that level of detail and thought can get the big slots. I think it's a great corruption of our understanding of how art and the world interact that somehow they should always be separate from one another. It's always been a real driving purpose to somehow inject some beauty into those bodies as it were.

If in the future, Wild Beasts are only remembered for one song, which song would you like it to be?

That's a very difficult question... [Thorpe pauses for 30 seconds.]

I think when people write retrospectives about us they often write about us trying to have a sense of sensuality, having this idea that you could be northern, hetero, and sensual. I guess that a song like "Hooting and Howling" might best sum that up because it's about a defiant sensuality in a Wetherspoons-era. It comes back to that idea of "why does it have to be like this?" As people, we thrive off, deserve, and need life-affirming things surrounding us but we're continuingly degraded by the structures that be. So I think "Hooting and Howling" is very poignant in that sense, it's the "bovver boot ballet."

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