“I realised yesterday that we’ve become the band that we started out not to be. We’re now the band that we’ve always kicked against. There’s a beautiful synergy to that.”
What’s the best frame of reference for Wild Beasts? Does one even exist? Amongst their peers, at least, both their sound and thematic approach have always felt singular. Those things that comprise their calling card aren’t especially easy to come by elsewhere; the juxtaposition of Tom Fleming’s rich baritone against Hayden Thorpe’s coquettish falsetto, for instance, or their uncommonly deep deconstructions of sexuality and masculinity.
A couple of years ago, Present Tense - their fourth LP - made a clean break from the three that preceded it. Lyrically, they’d been moving in that direction for a while anyway; Two Dancers had already eschewed Limbo, Panto’s oblique absurdity in favour of withdrawn reflection, and Smother had followed that up with a thorough investigation of human sensuality. The sonic throughline that weaved those albums together was a little clearer, though. There was an increasing refinement and lightness of touch to the guitars and the vocal interplay as time wore on, but Smother’s minimalist compositions were still identifiably the work of the vaudevillians behind Limbo, Panto.
Not that Present Tense sounded like another band entirely, by any means, but there was a definite sense that the blueprint had been tampered with irrevocably. The guitars did a disappearing act; synths replaced them, seeping into every pore of the group’s setup. The usual topical palette of sex, intimacy, and death found room for the addition of genuine optimism and affection. It was an album replete with unabashed love songs. I wonder how many weddings have been soundtracked by ‘Palace’, its closer. Not enough, probably.
All of which is to say that it’s difficult to know quite how Wild Beasts made it to where they are now, with Boy King. Their fifth full-length is everything its predecessor wasn’t; sneering, sleazy, and unrelentingly cynical. The synths remain, but the air of buoyancy does not, swapped instead for a mirthlessness that suggests they’ve been subsumed by the dark side that they’d only previously hinted at. “It’s got fuck songs, self-loathing songs, and angry songs,” announces Thorpe as he picks over the finer details of the record in an East London café. “There’s just no love songs. There are songs that are looking for love, but in all the wrong places.”
“The difference now,” Fleming chimes in, “is that we’re wearing on our sleeves all the problematic aspects of masculinity, the things we’ve always gone out of our way to avoid. It looks like a macho performance, but it suggests the opposite; that weakness, that vulnerability, that crass stupidity. Those things have always been a feature of our records, but the mode of transmission’s changed.”
For as long as they’ve been making music, Wild Beasts have been addressing typical notions of masculinity with the complexity and deftness of touch that such a thorny issue demands, but they’ve always done so at arm’s length. They hadn’t given method acting a go until now, but alpha male arrogance hangs over Boy King in suffocating fashion. “Big cat, top of the food chain,” snarls Thorpe on the opening track. The boneheaded substitution of vice for virtue underscores ‘Tough Guy’, meanwhile, and ‘Get My Bang’ plays like a paean to seedy promiscuity. It really does feel like quite the heel turn, but there was sound reason behind it - if not too much overthinking.
“Present Tense was such a meticulously designed, architectural project of a record,” explains Thorpe, “and that left us with a choice. We either donned the lab coats again, became even more mathematical and started to make music by algorithm, or we just put a fucking leather jacket on and adopted that narcissistic rock persona. And it was time for the leather jacket, I think. It was about becoming the guy that people think you are, that people want you to be.”
“It’s a show of strength, being able to grab the wheel and turn it hard left,” adds Fleming.
“Exactly, and it’s a huge artistic provision in itself, to still have that ability to surprise, to make somebody sit up and say, “what the fuck?” It was so thrilling, so life-affirming, to be throwing ideas around for this album and saying to each other, “how fucking dare you?” And we knew that would come with the risk that it might upset people who liked what we’ve done in the past, but better a brave and beautiful failure than a safe and regular passage, I suppose.”
In that respect, the medium has shifted shape as radically as the message on Boy King. There's a swagger and bullishness running through these tracks hitherto unstirred in Wild Beasts; this is an album that lacks the tentativeness of old, that instead mines funk (‘Ponytail’), flirts with industrial (‘Alpha Female’) and, on ‘He the Colossus’, finds room for the kind of phallic guitar riff most readily associated with the boy’s club that was eighties metal. It comes courtesy of Fleming’s recently acquired Jackson guitar, the kind that looks as if you wouldn’t legally be allowed to play it if you have fewer than eleven tattoos and haven’t ever owned a pair of leather pants.
“I remember the first day Tom brought in ‘The Axe’, and it was a statement. It’s a visual signifier, like somebody turning up for work in a white Ferrari,” says Thorpe. “You realised something’s changed. All the other cars in the car park are feeling a bit self-conscious. You have to go away and realise that the speed and prowess of this vehicle could be used to your advantage, if you fuel it right.”
In the end, however improbably, an instrument synonymous with hard-man posturing would prove pivotal to the direction of the next Wild Beasts album. “The artistic realisation was, “oh, Jesus, you’re doing what the Boy King would do! You’re becoming him!” laughs Thorpe. “Of course you’ve got the skyscraper of amps, and the obnoxious guitar, and of course you’re shredding, because the Boy King would have that - the shred face. It’s the most beautiful image of masculinity there is.”
Before the penny dropped for Thorpe, though, there was an inevitable clash of styles between himself and Fleming. Historically, the pair, alongside multi-instrumentalist Ben Little and drummer Chris Talbot, always found themselves able to assimilate their ideas relatively quickly, but on Boy King, Fleming was attempting to lay furious fretwork over the soul-driven strut Thorpe had in mind. “I think the best way to describe it is as a spiral, that starts off slow and far apart and gets quicker and closer together as it nears the centre,” offers Fleming. “You have to remind yourselves that you’re supposed to be pulling in the same direction, that you have to find a way for your ideas to work alongside each other.”
“Actually,” counters Thorpe with a grin, “the real scoop is that we have fistfights about it, and then fuck and make up. On a human level, you have to invest everything. It takes so much out of you that you have no choice but to fight tooth and nail for your ideas. You know, we’re a band of guys from northern England, from a robust northern farming town, so we’ve probably not got the most fluent lexicon when it comes to expressing our emotional needs. You’ve got these fledgeling songs that are fragile and not really tangible, and you have to trust that if they’re good enough, they’ll find a way into the slipstream. If not, stamp them out.”
Assisting them in that process on Boy King was John Congleton, who took on production duties. Fleming is quick to offer assurances that, despite the Texan’s remarkable run of midas-touch turns behind the desk in recent years, he remains “a punk rocker at heart - he keeps his Grammy in the toilet.” Congleton’s sparkling CV - he scooped that award for helming St. Vincent’s self-titled, by the by - was enough to encourage the Beasts to decamp to Dallas to have him record the album, despite only fleeting Skype contact with him in the run-up. Thorpe admits to having had his doubts.
“The night before we left, I was thinking, 'Let’s just go there and get this done. Go to work, clock in, do the shift, make the product, go home.' Very quickly, I realised it was going to be much more profound than that - a wider experience. It wasn’t just making a record - it was living together again after ten years. It was being in this bungalow in the middle of gung-ho Texas, in this Mexican ghetto.”
“I think one of the reasons that we’ve made it to five albums is that whenever we’re put in these challenging environments, we thrive,” Fleming adds. “We’re always at our best, and enjoying it the most, when we’re in the most preposterous situations. It’s always the biggest gigs, in the most far-flung parts of the earth, where we’re the most together. This was one of those risky situations. One minute, we’re on the phone to John, and the next day, we’re in an ex-mortuary, John’s studio in Oak Cliff, where Uber drivers fear to tread.”
Congleton’s impact on the music itself is beyond doubt; Fleming and Thorpe fire adjectives relating to his contribution across the table at each other. ‘Depravity’ pops up, as does ‘sloppy’ and ‘disgusting’. As Fleming puts it, “everything was dialled up to a cruder level than we would’ve allowed for on our own.” The emotional heft, though, comes straight from the band themselves, and is the elephant in the café throughout our discussion. These guys were writing love songs that shone with quiet optimism just a couple of years ago. Where did it all go wrong?
“Some pretty transformational things happened after Present Tense,” admits Thorpe. “As is often the case in people’s lives. This is a very reactive record. We didn’t need a conference call or a band meeting.”
Fleming concurs. “There’s some reasonably heavy stuff behind it, yeah. Especially because, as you start sailing past your twenties, shit starts to go wrong. Part of the reason it sounds like it does is as a response to frustration and sadness. It taps into what listening to music was like as a teenager. I wanted to feel something.”
It’s there, in that maelstrom of resentment and aggression, that Boy King puts the largest body of clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Wild Beasts catalogue. This is the first time that you can legitimately describe one of their records as being, in parts, thoroughly ugly. ‘2BU’ is a case in point; “I’m the type of man who wants to watch the world burn,” growls Fleming on one of the album’s most sinister cuts; it feels like a deliberate attempt to unsettle the listener. “That’s a trope we’ve used in the past, that juxtaposition,” he says, “but not in such extreme terms. That’s a song that sounds pretty, but obviously has horrible, murderous themes running through it, that we’ve kind of slipped in there by stealth. And it’s funny that you should pick up on that particular lyric, because it’s one that you could argue the whole record’s centred around - and yet, there’s a lyric like that on every track.”
“But that line does tap into the key of the record,” presses Thorpe, “because what exploration of love there is on there looks at the fact that we live out our most dangerous desires with the people that we’re closest to. It’s the people who know us best that see our darknesses - that’s the way love is. That line on ‘2BU’ is describing something in the human mechanism - there’s a satiation in watching things burning around you, because the people you love the most inspire the most violent wants and wishes in you. That’s where the self-loathing, masochistic sex of the record comes in. It’s that thing of, “I’m ashamed of myself that I have to go to these lengths to get what I want, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
There’s a preoccupation running through Boy King with the passage of time and the transience of the road, too, especially as the band reach their thirties. “We’ve become specialists in abandonment,” laughs Thorpe. “‘Dreamliner’ stems from exactly that - that feeling, on tour, where you’re on a flight and you’re thinking, “why don’t I just fucking start again, right here? I’ll land in this place, and I like it there, so fuck it.” There’s the constant threat of that ‘fuck it’ button as you get older, and it can turn into an existential crisis.”
The quick turnaround between Present Tense and Boy King is down largely to the lack of an extended break between touring and writing - “maybe a month off,” as Fleming puts it. That work ethic dates back to their formative days at university, when “we’d be rehearsing four or five nights, which was unheard of; when the more talented guys were in bed, we were in the studio.” Thorpe and Fleming were in reflective mood as they prepared to return to the road.
“A lot of my friends are married now, with kids and houses,” Fleming says. “When we were 21, 22, everyone thought what we were doing was awesome, and they were showing up to all the gigs. Now, our lives are completely disconnected, but that’s what we signed up for. What did we think was going to happen? The problem with touring so much is that it’s difficult to escape from things. At times, as The National say, trouble will find you.”
Thorpe concurs. “I keep thinking back to that night before we went out to Dallas, where I’d wanted to go there and get things over and done with. It wouldn’t have worked for this band. I had to be porous, and for the first time, when people asked if the songs were about me, I had to say, “yeah, I am that guy” - even where some of the songs are quite creepy or obnoxious. I think we know now that you have to believe in the bungee - lean into it, let go, and just hope to fuck that it pulls you back up.”
Boy King is available now via Domino. Wild Beasts tour the UK from September 28th.