Wild Beasts – “A bit ugly, a little bit crude, a bit awkward”
“We’re getting better at flirting with disaster in our songs and getting away with it”. Wild Beasts mix it up for their fourth album, ’Present Tense’
Wild Beasts: Chris Talbot, Tom Fleming, Hayden Thorpe and Ben Little
When does a band go from being “good” to being “important”? For Wild Beasts it happened around 2011, when their third album, Smother , was released to great fanfare and the best reviews of their career. Comparisons to genre-defining acts such as Talk Talk abounded and the Kendal quartet were described as “the most inspirational, intriguing, effortlessly enrapturing band at work on these shores” by the BBC. No pressure, then.
“The thing is, you always think you’re an important band,” grins Fleming. “In your head, you always think you’re the shit, and it’s either true or it isn’t. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about what other people think of you.”
On a brief pit stop in Dublin ahead of the release of their fourth album, Present Tense , it’s evident that the working relationship between the articulate pair has been refined and buffed over the course of 11 years of making music together. Since 2008’s Limbo, Panto – which introduced us to their unique, jubilantly oddball, hyper-intelligent indie-pop with remarkable vocals – the duo’s songwriting partnership has gone from strength to strength. The well-received Two Dancers followed in 2009, before a move to London from Leeds the following year offered the new horizons explored on Smother . Fleming says the city’s influence can also be heard on Present Tense .
“This record was very much imagined in London,” he explains. “It’s very much a ‘city’ record in every sense. In practical terms, it was begun on a computer because space is expensive there; in a lot of ways, it’s reflective of living in an expensive and unfair city.”
“London’s one of those cities that gets in you; it kind of gets under your nails and imposes its ways upon you,” agrees Thorpe. “London chooses you, and I think it’s definitely a record made under that guise. There’s a kind of competition with a huge amount of musicians and creative people, and that stirs up a lot of aggro - but I think it kind of suits us, in a way, because it’s not comfortable. It’s certainly not this romantic creative hub. I think it’s very important not to become too big a fish in a small pond.”
There were a lot of changes this time around, not least the period of time it took to record. While their last two albums had been done in intense, two-week blocks, Present Tense was given space to develop between January and May last year, and was recorded with new producers Lexx and Brian Eno’s protégé Leo Abrahams, rather than the band’s regular collaborator Richard Formby. The extra time meant the foursome could put some thought into where they are going next, and not just “make another Wild Beasts record”, as Thorpe puts it. The lead single, Wanderlust , with its dark, pinging synth and repetitive drumming, is a good example of the shift in style. While much of Smother retained a warm, comforting throb, there is a wilful abrasiveness to Present Tense . It is about “beautifying those ugly feelings” in a less obvious way, says Thorpe.
“Previously we’d always gone off, created a world and built it as quickly as we could while the other one disappeared. This time, we kind of had to exist in it,” he explains. “If you’re getting on the train back to the studio in the morning and it’s still moving to you, then it probably has something good about it.”
The shift to a more electronic sound – which had begun subtly on their last album – is definitely more perceptible on songs such as Mecca and Palace .
“It’s more immediate, I think,” agrees Fleming. “A bit ugly, a little bit crude, a bit awkward. I think leaving the angles in is important. This sounds a bit conceptual, but when you’re writing on a computer, it’s all square and blocky and you’re piecing stuff together in a very un-musical way. That way of composing leads you to make things that sound like this. I think you can decorate and perfect with electronics, but before you know it, the whole core of it is gone – so I think leaving the messy bits in was a very important part of this record.”
“Your palette’s much more widescreen,” adds Thorpe. “We often make sensual music: music about the body and of the body, and I think when you’re working with those kind of frequencies, as on a synth, by its nature it’s far more stirring and evocative. That was exciting. And also, although we’re not at all master craftsmen of guitars, or anything, there is a predictability, after a point, that you need to abandon. We do work much more crudely with electronics, because we don’t know them – and that kind of mystery is appealing creatively, because you’re allowing a lot of accidents in.
“ I don’t think we’re doing anything madly different or new – the same components are in there but just as with a Rubik’s cube, it’s different combinations, and there’s always a different face and a different pattern. A lot of the sounds on Smother are on this album, too – they’re just put in there differently. A lot of songs on this record do flirt with disaster quite deliberately, on an emotional level. They could be too syrupy, or too bleak, too poppy, too soft, too fluffy, or too hard. The margins are so fine, and I think that’s kind of what we’re getting better at: flirting with disaster, and pulling it off.”
As the band has gotten older, their lyric-writing process has changed, too. Many of the songs on Present Tense are less lyrically abstract and literate than their previous material has been, although the themes of sex, masculinity, class and death remain.
“I think the first two records were very robust and coded in the kind of destructive way that only youth can bring,” says Thorpe, laughing. “ Smother was a kind of ‘consequences’ record – all of a sudden, there was a tomorrow. This record is more about acceptance. I think as you get older, you lose the decoration; you kind of get bored of the fancy stuff, and you also get a bit more confident to be a bit more heartfelt. When you’re younger and a bit awkward and a bit self-conscious, you do everything you can to mask or obscure what is genuinely the heart of the song. Now, that’s generally the starting point.”
Four albums in and Wild Beasts continue to make vibrant, vital, progressive pop music that refuses to be dumbed-down or diluted for a mass audience. They are both very aware that not many modern bands so “off the grid”, as they put it, get to make four albums.
“We’re at this point where we’ve never really had a big hit; we’ve never had the luxury of that,” says Thorpe, smiling. “But I think that’s made a difference, in a strange way. The romance and dream of it is still in there. I think we went into this record thinking ‘This has to be our defining piece; this is going to be the moment’, and I don’t think it is. But I think there’s a sense of optimism in this album. It’s not a thumbs-up, blue-sky sort of optimism; it’s more like grey-sky thinking. And that suits us.”
Present Tense is out on Domino Records on February 21st. Wild Beasts play Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on March 29th