Deconstructing Masculinity and the Mainstream With Tom Fleming
May 27, 2011
Kendal, England's Wild Beasts have just released their third album, Smother, to what is pretty much worldwide acclaim. Known for their elaborate but spacious arrangements and the flabbergasting vocal techniques of the male alto Hayden Thorpe, Wild Beasts make music where the weird meets the gorgeous, the creepy meets the sexy and the devastating meets the inspirational. Their sophomore album, Two Dancers, was nominated for a Mercury Prize in 2009 and as a result they've secured a seat at the table with Britain's most respected and adored modern bands. Under the Radar caught up with the Wild Beast's multi-instrumentalist and other lead vocalist, Tom Fleming, to talk about Smother, masculinity, and the avant-garde.
Kenny S. McGuane: First of all: A belated congratulations on your Mercury Prize nomination from a few years back.
Tom Fleming: [Laughs] Thank you very much. It was kind of a cherry on the cake.
In the United States the only real equivalent to the Mercury Prize is the Grammys, but the Mercury Prize is far more prestigious. I wondered, for a band as avant-garde as Wild Beasts, if something like the Mercury Prize is important to you.
Well, I do think the Mercury Prize is the best of its kind. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its problems. It's still ultimately quite popular and does draw attention to some really cool stuff. For us, it was always something we were very interested in growing up. If a band won the Mercury Prize, it was a badge of honor. Being nominated does make a difference, because it causes a surge of interest. We know the guys from The xx and after they won they were sort of whisked away into the upper echelon. They're effectively a mainstream act now, not by virtue of the music, necessarily, but by virtue of how many people are listening to them.
At what point during the genesis of Wild Beasts did you guys make a decision for you to share vocal duties with Hayden? Was it that way from the beginning?
Well, I was the last to join the band, maybe five or six years ago now. I had my own project at the time, which I was singing in. They did say early on, "We'd like you to sing." It started off with just harmonies, but then I was singing more and more and we were using some of my songs. It's become second nature for us now, as far as knowing when to use what, in terms vocals.
It's clear Wild Beasts use vocals as actual musical instruments and you make vocal selections like you would any other instrument in terms of what's most appropriate for the song.
Yeah, I think that's about right. We also think lyrics are instruments; they're supposed to do something, supposed to have an effect, apart from the sound of the voice. I think I've always had a problem with "lyrics first" bands. For us it's really about the overall sound of things, and then you have to see if you can come up with any meaning.
I've heard Wild Beasts compared to The Smiths, lyrically, melodically, and in terms of arrangements. What are your thoughts on that?
They were definitely a big influence, especially early on, as far the way things were arranged as the overall aesthetic. The way Johnny Marr approaches guitar parts, I mean, you can play a 'C' chord or, ya know, you can play a 'C' chord. He has a way of finding the space in very familiar things. The range of influence in that band is incredible. So, yeah, absolutely a huge influence.
What inspired the striking stylistic and aesthetic jump from your debut, Limbo, Panto, to Two Dancers?
I think the difference between those two records was the result of learning how to make records. So, Two Dancers was kind of our first record as fully-fledged musicians, whereas the first one was just an amalgam of all the ideas we had. By the second album we really sat down and asked ourselves, "Okay, what are we actually doing here?" It wasn't really a conscious decision; it just seemed obvious that it was what we should do. We learned how to arrange things as well, which I think we've done more of on Smother as far as taking more away [in the arrangements]. That takes a kind of experience, knowing what needs to be there and what needs to be left out.
It seems the one guarantee with Wild Beasts is that we can always count on a surprise.
[Laughs] Thank you.
I don't know what I was expecting after Two Dancers, but I wasn't expecting Smother.
Well that's amazing, because we were afraid of that [making the same record]. We didn't want to make "Three Dancers". There were two directions to go, we could either make the new record harder and more danceable, or slow it down a bit.
Right, Smother picks up where Two Dancers left off in terms of its quietest and most poignant moments. And that was on purpose?
I think it definitely was deliberate. We wanted to slow down, we'd had a very crazy couple of years and we wanted to make something we could feel good about playing every night, something gentler and more—I don't want to say personal exactly—but kind of more personalized, on a more human scale, like a one-on-one scale, I suppose. That was kind of what we were after.
You guys pretty much defy categorization and it's difficult to pinpoint specific musical inspirations in your work. I know, with respect to Smother, you've said you'd been listening to a lot of Talk Talk. Are there other influences that you guys hold near and dear?
We try not to think about it, but they are inevitable. Talking Heads are very important to us. Swans are quite important to me as well, the way Michael Gira doesn't really make proper albums, a Swans song is what he says it is. Kate Bush, as well, she's definitely an influence.
Were Wild Beasts always aware that they were doing something avant-garde? Or did you experiment more with mainstream pop early on?
Well, we definitely set ourselves in opposition to the sort of bland, conservative stuff that was coming about around 2006/2007, and we were never gonna sound like that, because we hated it. We felt like we had tightly coiled songs. But, because we wanted to write songs, we also felt like we could never call ourselves an "avant-garde" band. We just wanted to have a new voice, or at least reiterate that there is another voice.
Speaking of voices, anyone who hears Hayden's voice for the first time probably finds it pretty shocking, at least I did. I'm sure you can understand how it would take listeners a few tries to wrap their heads around exactly what's going on.
Well, absolutely. I don't think Hayden's voice is directly beautiful; it's flawed and ugly and also beautiful and delicate.
Did Hayden always sing like that? Or were you guys experimenting and then had an "ah-hah" moment?
Well, I think Hayden was very private about his singing until he felt ready. His voice has always been that way to my knowledge, but it's obviously gotten much better and more expressive in the time we've been working. Obviously he makes artistic choices about the way he does things, but that is his voice, it is that high.
You guys sing about sex a lot.
One critic said that "Wild Beasts have got a permanent erection." Are you guys determined to write about sex or is that just what naturally falls out of your mouths and onto the page?
I think, definitely, it's sometimes an accident, kind of letting loose the chain a little bit. Not only are we English, but we're from Northern England, which is a very repressed place and, to be macho, that's always about strength and power if you're a man. We think it's important to notice its opposite, we've made our albums, almost like female writers, we want to provide an alternative voice [for masculinity]. I mean, you talk about having "a permanent erection" and it implies masculine power and all-conquering sexuality and it's just not like that, people don't live their lives like that and it's not interesting to hear about it. It's really a pack of lies and we wanted to provide an alternative voice, not exactly more human, but maybe more humanistic, more understanding about people's weaknesses.
Right. I've noticed this about the way Wild Beasts sing and write about sex: It exemplifies that other internal, male, sexual pathology that many people don't take the time to notice and it's a pathology that's often really sensual and totally devastating.
You're right, it is an internal thing and it is on a personal scale. Also, it's something you're not told, you have to find out for yourself. And you're right: It is devastating. I think it's really important, if you care about music, to dignify the things that people aren't talking about. If you say something, it's almost guaranteed that someone else will feel the same about it. That's been my relationship with music since I was a child; I felt I had a friend in music. We feel it's an artistic imperative to try and tell the truth. I mean, that sounds very grandiose [laughs], but sometimes we do have to come out swinging.
Do you guys write independently and then come together as a band to mesh your individual ideas or do you sit in a room and write from start to finish together?
I think the meshing is more like it, we find it sounds much less songwriter-like if we do it that way. It's a lot less of a "band-in-a-room" record; it's a lot of tearing stuff apart and putting stuff together, reassembling. What we did this time was record everything and keep everything, so that the time between conceptualization and realization was really short.
Aside from the obvious, where do you find audiences are the most receptive to your brand of rock music?
Well, we live in London, where people are in tune with the kind of stuff we're doing, also places like Manchester and Glasgow, those are probably our best audiences. We are kind of country kids; we come from a tradition of Northern guitar bands, so I think people appreciate our rural-ness. We're not art school students; we are kind of authentic in that sense. But also, I have found it incredible, when we've toured America, finding out how much people care. I was absolutely astonished.
Is there anything you'd change about Smother?
Well, I don't think it's a perfect record by any means. There are certainly things I like and certainly things I would have changed, personally. But I think Wild Beasts works four ways and we have to take the view that, "Well, this is what we did at the time and it's fine for that." There are things I would change if I could, but I'm not sure that would make it a better record. There is a point where you have to relinquish control, that's an important part of being in a collective: It's knowing when to shut your mouth and just let things happen.